We've got a pair of Western Conference battles on tap this Tuesday, with one series perhaps on the verge of wrapping up and the other having only just begun. Here's a look ahead at what to keep an eye on during this evening's action.
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How will Houston adjust to Dallas' new-look starting lineup? Desperately needing both an answer for slowing down James Harden after his playoff-career-high 42-point performance in Game 3 and a jolt of playmaking inspiration after getting bupkus from Raymond Felton in just his fourth start at the point in a Mavericks uniform, Rick Carlisle slotted his two top reserves — long-armed swingman Al-Farouq Aminu and diminutive sparkplug J.J. Barea — into the starting five for Sunday's Game 4. The move paid off swimmingly.
The Aminu-Barea-Monta Ellis-Dirk Nowitzki-Tyson Chandler unit outscored Houston by 21 points in 18 minutes of floor time on Sunday, helping lead Dallas to a 121-109 win that staved off a sweep and sent the series back to Toyota Center for Tuesday's Game 5. Aminu did a strong job of dampening Harden — who still managed 24 points on 7-for-15 shooting with five assists against one turnover, but had to fight the Wake Forest product's 7-foot-3 wingspan for space and clean looks all night — while also chipping in 16 points on 6-for-10 shooting and 12 rebounds. Barea just kept slicing and dicing his way through the Rockets' defense, drive-and-kicking his way to 17 points and 13 assists against four turnovers, continuing to establish himself as Dallas' best option at the point in this series.
Aminu's ability to stick Harden and stay with him through screens without necessitating switches, double-teams or additional help means fewer fires for Chandler to have to put out after perimeter penetration. The jolt in long-range shooting that came from the two new additions — Aminu and Barea combined to make five of 11 3-point tries, a legitimate threat that Houston can't ignore — generated more space on the interior for drives by Ellis and Barea, gave Nowitzki more room to work and created more opportunities for Chandler to make hard dives to the rim for dunks. The impact of Aminu and Barea held up in a couple of different permutations, too; Aminu-Barea-Chandler-Ellis with Charlie Villanueva in Dirk's place outscored Houston by eight points in six minutes of floor time, and Aminu-Barea-Ellis-Nowitzki with Amar'e Stoudemire in Chandler's stead outscored the Rockets by nine points in a three-minute burst.
Caught on his heels, Kevin McHale tried to downshift and go small against the Mavericks spread-it-out attack, trotting out lineups with four perimeter players — some mix of Harden, Corey Brewer, Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, Pablo Prigioni and even rookie Nick Johnson — alongside either Dwight Howard or Josh Smith. That approach, however, takes another capable offensive playmaker — starting Rockets power forward Terrence Jones — off the floor. While the Kentucky product wasn't necessarily any great shakes on Sunday, scoring 13 points on 5-for-12 shooting with six rebounds in 18 minutes, the removal of a viable offensive four that take it to Dirk with more success than Ariza managed to Sunday (seven points, 2-for-10 from the field, 0-for-5 from 3-point land) seems like a win for a Dallas defense that's struggled to get stops all season long and that bled points at a league-worst rate through the first three games of this series.
The Rockets remain in control of the series, of course, and for Dallas to match the Milwaukee Bucks' efforts and force a Game 6, role players like Aminu, Barea, Villanueva (eight points, six rebounds in 12 minutes on Sunday) and Devin Harris (four points, one rebound, one steal, active defense throughout) will have to reproduce their Game 4 efforts away from the friendly confines of the American Airlines Center. The Rockets, for their part, seem to believe that getting blown back on Sunday offered a needed corrective that will have their minds right come tipoff.
“It’s an easy fix. I think we were too relaxed,” Brewer said Tuesday, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “We were up 3-0. Tonight, I think everybody is ready to go. Everybody has an edge.”
It was Dallas that had the edge in Game 4, though, thanks in large part to Carlisle's shuffling of the deck. We'll see whether McHale's able to pull the trump on Tuesday and bring the physical series to an end.
Can San Antonio figure out how to short-circuit the Clippers' pick-and-roll game? With the Spurs seeking a commanding 3-1 lead on their home floor on Sunday, Chris Paul ran amok, Austin Rivers carved up Patty Mills in his most important game as a pro, and Jamal Crawford crossed his way past Tim Duncan into a huge late bucket. Time and again, L.A. went to a HORNS-based double-high screen, forcing Spurs perimeter defenders to try to navigate the likes of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and the surprisingly effective Glen Davis; time and again, Clippers ball-handlers with a full head of steam and tons of open space with which to attack the Spurs bigs (mostly back-line captain Duncan) cashed in with layups, pull-up jumpers, kickouts to open shooters or drawn fouls.
Among players who finished at least 100 possessions as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll this season, Paul ranked second in both points produced per possession (behind only Lou Williams of the Toronto Raptors) and the share of possessions on which his team scored at least one point (behind only Rodney Hood of the Utah Jazz), according to Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting data. Crawford, too, ranked among the league's top 30 point producers as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Rivers isn't on their level, but when he's of a mind to attack, he can use his handle and quickness to beat step-slow defenders off the bounce and make things happen.
CP3's the biggest reason that the Clips ranked No. 1 in the league in points scored per possession on plays finished by pick-and-roll ball-handlers, but for all the well-documented shortcomings of their bench, this is something they can do — they can handle the rock, make quick moves and get downhill. Through four games — with the exception of the Game 3 blowout loss, natch — that's been a real problem for a Spurs defense that ranked third in the NBA in points allowed per possession during the regular season but finished 19th among 30 teams in stopping pick-and-roll ball-handlers, and has been roasted to the tune of 111.2 points per 100 possessions in their two losses in this series.
Injuries play a big part here, with a hobbled Tony Parker seems like lunchmeat moving laterally and Tiago Splitter's lingering calf injury perhaps sapping a bit of his mobility as he moves in the half-court (although he has looked stout when defending in the post). Ultimately, though, the onus seems to fall on primary defenders like Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Mills to navigate their way through the screens and avoid allowing Paul, Crawford or Rivers to find themselves in the open court alone, with nothing between them and a San Antonio big but open space and opportunity.
Duncan, who finished with 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting, 14 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals in Game 4, thinks San Antonio can tighten up its coverages and correct the mistakes that left the Spurs so vulnerable on Sunday.
“We see a lot of things we can fix very easily with just doing it the right way, doing it the right way over and over again,” he said, according to Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News. “Hopefully we can fix that within this interim and do better next game.&rdquo
If they can't, they'll find themselves in a position nearly as unenviable seeing CP3 coming at you with momentum and options — down 3-2 with the home-court-holding Clips knowing they've got two chances to dethrone the defending champs.
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