Today's column shifts the focus forward with a pair of playoff previews. We'll be looking at the Rockets vs. Thunder and Clippers vs. Jazz, with columns to follow examining the other six first-round pairings. We won't know until later tonight whether the Clippers or Jazz will have homecourt advantage, but that doesn't matter much for the purposes of this column. If you missed the first installment in this series, by Mike Gallagher, click here to check it out!
Rockets (3) vs. Thunder (6)
Season record: 3-1 in favor of the Rockets
In their most recent clash, the Rockets beat OKC 137-125 in a defense-free bonanza that featured four different Rockets players scoring at least 22 points, including Lou Williams (who shot 11-of-15 from the field with seven 3-pointers). Nene had a terrific game off the bench that night, and Houston didn't seem to miss Ryan Anderson, whose starting spot was taken over by Eric Gordon. It was less of a group effort for the Thunder, who got 62 points combined from Russell Westbrook and Enes Kanter, but not nearly enough from their teammates.
That game was an outlier in the season series, however, as the first three games were decided by a total of just seven points. The Thunder won their first meeting in OKC, 105-103, followed by a pair of tough losses (one at home, one away). It's worth mentioning that in their first three matchups, James Harden shot a combined 16-of-55 from the field (29.1 percent).
Victor Oladipo scored a season-high 29 points vs. the Rockets back on Nov. 16, but his shot was cold in their three subsequent games. Enes Kanter has shot the ball very well vs. Houston this year, but as usual the issue is playing time -- he averaged a mere 18.5 minutes in four games, below his season average of 21.3 minutes. For the Rockets, Eric Gordon has averaged a steady 19.0 points vs. OKC, Lou Williams blew up in his one game against them (albeit in an expanded role off the bench, since Eric Gordon was starting), and Nene has been incredibly effective with 14.3 points on 76.7 percent shooting.
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Here's a look at some basic statistics from NBA.com, which show how the starting lineups have fared this season:
The Rockets are on the left, Thunder on the right.
And here is a more nuanced look at each team's offense and defense vs. play types. Note that I'm only focusing on the primary play types, which excludes cuts, handoffs, miscellaneous plays, etc. We'll begin with how Houston's offense has fared, compared to the Thunder defense.
The Rockets are very efficient in isolations, whereas the Thunder defense is middle-of-the-pack in those situations. That bodes well for James Harden, who has a 23.8% frequency for isolations -- for comparison, the closest Rocket is Eric Gordon at 8.3%. The Thunder are better at defending the ball-handler in P&R situations, which is where Harden butters his bread -- that accounts for 40.5% of his shots, and both Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley are also heavily reliant on this play-type.
Interestingly, although OKC is good against ball-handlers, they've been the worst team in the league at stopping roll-men. That's promising news for guys like Clint Capela and Nene (who has indeed torched them, as we've seen). The Thunder are also bad against post-ups, but that hardly matters because the Rockets relied on post-ups for just 2.2% of their plays this season, which was easily the lowest mark in the league. Hopefully they'll attack their opponent's weakness at stopping rollers in pick-and-roll situations, to the benefit of their big men.
One final thought is that OKC has been relatively bad defending spot-up shooters. That's a staple of Houston's offense and plays to the strengths of Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson, in particular, as well as Troy Williams, Pat Beverley, Eric Gordon, and even Lou Williams. There's a lot to like about this matchup if you're a fan of Houston's offense.
The play types listed above account for 75.2% of OKC's offense, yet the plays with the highest frequency are also among their least efficient. Moreover, the play they rely on most often (as do most teams), pick-and-roll ball-handler, is the play against which the Rockets have been terrific defensively. Houston has held opponents to a mere 0.78 points per possession in those situations, and OKC isn't great to begin with at just 0.83 ppp. Russell Westbrook will need to be at his best to solve that conundrum, and he could also mix in more isolation plays -- that's been one glaring weakness of Houston's regular-season defense.
This table also highlights the fact that the Thunder need more shooters to spread the court and take some pressure off Westbrook. A hefty 16.4% of their offense has been comprised of spot-up shots, yet they rank 26th in the league in points per possession on those attempts. Houston is above average at defending those shots, too, which spells trouble for guys like Alex Abrines, Doug McDermott and Andre Roberson. Even Oladipo has taken one-fifth of his shots on spot-ups, which helps to explain his recent struggles against the Rockets.
The goal here isn't to offer up hot takes about who will win a series, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that Houston will cruise into the second round.
Clippers vs. Jazz
Season Record: 3-1 in favor of the Clippers.
There was a lot of garbage time in the first two games between the Clippers and Jazz this season -- George Hill was the only Jazz player to reach 30 minutes in either contest. Things tightened up in Utah's 114-108 home win on Mar. 13, and the Clippers used a dominant first quarter to win their most recent matchup on Mar. 25 (Derrick Favors, who is listed as probable for Wednesday's game, was out for both of those games). There have been no consistently dominant players in this matchup, with both team's stars and role players trading off big games with duds.
Utah has the second-best defensive rating in the NBA this season, but they've softened somewhat since the All-Star break. They're yielding 105.2 points per 100 possessions during that span, which is 9th in the league. The Clippers' defense has also been trending down, finishing 18th since the break with 107.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. We can expect both teams to tighten the screws defensively in the postseason, against more grind-it-out halfcourt sets, so those numbers should improve in a hurry.
With that in mind, let's look at how the starters compared this season (I used Boris Diaw as Utah's starting PF):
The Clippers are on the left, the Jazz are on the right.
And here's the breakdown of each team's offense and defense by play-type, beginning with the Clippers' offense vs. Jazz defense:
The Clippers lean heavily on spot-up shooting, as we can see, and for good reason -- with 1.06 points per possession, they're the fourth-most-efficient team in the league. L.A.'s second most-used play type is pick-and-roll ball-handler, at 17.9%, and it so happens that those are Utah's only obvious weaknesses defensively. Chris Paul is an obvious winner. Nearly half of his plays have been as a ball-handler in P&R situations (44.7%), and this also bodes well for Raymond Felton, Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford. As for the spot-up shooting, the biggest beneficiaries there are Wesley Johnson, Paul Pierce (if he plays), Luc Mbah a Moute and Marreese Speights.
On the other side of the equation, Utah has been good against roll-men and terrific against post-ups -- no surprise, with Rudy Gobert patrolling the paint. DeAndre Jordan relies on those two play-types for 29.9% of his offense, and Blake Griffin is at 33.8%, presenting a challenge to the Clips' starting frontcourt to score with efficiency. It's not a coincidence that Jordan, who is shooting a ridiculous 71.3% from the field this season, went just 51.6% against Utah (his second-lowest mark vs. any opponent). Blake shot reasonably well in four games vs. the Jazz, but his 16.8 points per game represent his second-lowest scoring vs. any opponent.
Utah should think long and hard about avoiding isolation sets in this series. They're already inefficient at 0.81 points per possession, and the Clippers have been the best team in the league defending isos. L.A. has been far more vulnerable in transition, where Utah has made the most of every opportunity, even though they don't get out and run as often as other teams (they're 29th in the league with 9.1% frequency, compared to 18.5% for the league-leading Warriors). The good news is that the only players who rely frequently on isolations are Joe Johnson and Rodney Hood -- even Gordon Hayward is at just 7.4%.
An interesting clash will come at the PG spot. George Hill has thrived in pick-and-rolls (42.1% frequency), while Chris Paul has once again been adept at snuffing out that action. Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood are also reliant on this play-type, and they could be even more reliant if the pace of the game slows down (as it certainly will). It's a pressure-point that could define the outcome of the series.
One more area of interest is spot-up shooting, which the Jazz offense relies on for 22.0% of their looks -- that's the sixth-most in the league. The only playoff teams who are more spot-up happy are the Spurs and Celtics. The Clippers have been good but not great against spot-up shooters, which opens an opportunity for Utah -- they'll need guys like Joe Ingles, Boris Diaw, Trey Lyles, Dante Exum and Joe Johnson to knock down the easy shots created for them by teammates.
Again, I'm not trying to predict a winner in this column, but I'm skeptical that Utah can overcome L.A.'s veteran talent in a seven-game series. The Clippers' offensive strengths match up favorably with Utah's very few defensive soft spots, the Clips are peaking at the right moment with six straight wins (including the Rockets and Spurs), and there's no guarantee that guys like Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood can stay healthy. I'm not anticipating a landslide series, but I do expect to see Chris Paul and company in the second round.
Look out for more postseason-preview columns on Rotoworld in the days to come, and most of all...enjoy the playoffs!