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Harrison Barnes

It’s Going Down!

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NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Toronto Raptors

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The scene was set for a historic afternoon of Raptors basketball, with the city of Toronto showing up in huge numbers to support their team in its first post-season appearance since the Vince Carter era. The Air Canada Centre was filled to the brim and another 10,000 raucous fans waited outside the arena watching the game on a big screen. There was a palpable energy in the building from the tip and you could tell that everybody in the stands was waiting for that one moment that would allow them to blow the roof off of the building.

But that moment never came. The closest the Raptors came to giving their home crowd a reason to to go crazy was when Greivis Vasquez nailed a three to give the Raptors the lead with five minutes to go. The lead wouldn’t last for long, though, as Joe Johnson answered immediately on the other end. And that’s when Brooklyn’s wily ole vets, who had struggled just like most of the team throughout the afternoon, helped seal the game for the Nets with some tremendous crunchtime shot making that remind us that, though their glory days are past, they are still two bad dudes.

Kevin Garnett got things started with a turnaround jumper from the post, and then Paul Pierce, Boston’s closer for so many years, took control. Pierce nailed a three off one of Brooklyn’s most effective actions, a 1/2 screen-and-roll with Williams on the left side of the floor, which forced Toronto’s weakside defenders to slide into the paint for just a second, allowing for Pierce to slide up to the right wing, with Garnett setting a brilliant backscreen on Pierce’s man to get him free. Then Pierce rescued a poor Nets possession by driving into the lane late in the shot clock for a lay-up, though it’s hard to say he didn’t travel. And finally, with Toronto managing just two points over the last three minutes of game action, Pierce drilled a fallaway mid-range jumper off an inbounds pass to put the game away for good.

This was an extremely tough game for the Raptors to lose. Not only did they give up homecourt advantage in this game, but they lost in the most disheartening way possible. The Nets were putrid offensively, not because they ran bad sets, but because they’d get good looks and miss them. They shot 4-of-24 from three in this game and prior to Pierce’s dagger late in the game they had missed 19 three-point attempts in a row. Brooklyn wasn’t a great offensive team this season, but most of their line-ups with Pierce as the smallball four scored at a pretty good rate, so this kind of offensive outing is not something you’d expect from them again going forward.

Meanwhile, the Nets defense was completely locked in all game. They had the Raptors scouted well and their scheme neutered almost all of Toronto’s actions. Their combined length on the perimeter deterred drives and disrupted passes, forcing the Raptors into 17 turnovers while holding them to 39% shooting. The Nets showed on almost all pick-and-rolls, taking away any space for Kyle Lowry to launch from deep while rotating quickly on the outside. Just about the only consistent success that the Raptors had offensively in this one was with Jonas Valanciunas in pick-and-rolls as he was able to make a couple of clean catches on the way to the basket for some good looks.

Other than that, though, the Raptor offense was stagnant and bogged down. Despite playing some line-ups with three shooters spacing the floor around their pick-and-roll, Toronto was still unable to find space because of Brooklyn’s tremendous defensive effort. And, perhaps most importantly, Shaun Livingston submitted a sublime individual defensive effort on DeMar DeRozan, forcing DeRozan into one of his worst shooting games of the season (3-of-13 from the field, 0-of-4 from deep) and stifling a lot of the sets that the Raptors are used to flowing into to get DeRozan the ball in good spots. Take this play for instance, where Livingston and Pierce prevent DeRozan from getting any momentum off a pick-and-roll with Amir Johnson while Livingston recovers, sticks right on the hip of DeRozan and forces him into a bad shot.

Plays where DeRozan was able to get free from Livingston in this game were few and far between, and when Livingston sat with foul trouble, Joe Johnson did an admirable job defending DeRozan. Dwane Casey will have to find ways to get DeRozan the ball in space and with momentum going towards the rim to get him going in this series, because the Nets’ pick-and-roll coverages prevent him from turning the corner off a screen, and he’s been unable to get by his man in one-on-one situations. That’s easier said than done, though, and it’s entirely possible than the potential laden DeRozan simply needs another off-season to develop the kind of one-on-one maneuvers necessary to beat the tight defense he’s going to see in the post-season over the next decade.

The Raptors were OK themselves defensively, but the numbers would have looked much worse had the Nets made even half of the many good looks from deep that they got in this game. Toronto has to be much smarter with their double teams for the rest of the series, whether that means coming earlier, changing up where the help comes from throughout the game or simply trying to let Lowry, DeRozan or Ross defend in the post one-on-one, because Johnson feasted on their second and third rotations in this game when they came to double him in the post.

This was an extremely disheartening loss for the Raptors. The fans were pumped to have the post-season back in their city and the Nets played very poorly offensively for the majority of this game, opening the door for the Raptors to start the series off on a good note. But the Raptors just couldn’t capitalize. Brooklyn’s strong, smart defensive effort kept them from every establishing rhythm and Pierce’s late-game heroics fossilized them for good.

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It’s difficult to tell if the Warriors are going to make this a series or if the atrocious officiating, which hurt both sides in this game, muddied things up so much that there’s nothing to take away from this one other than that Mark Jackson really had his troops ready to play. Blake Griffin played 19 minutes in this game because of foul trouble, Andre Iguodala fouled out in the fourth quarter after picking up four in the first half, Chris Paul had to spend more time than usual on the bench because of a few ticky tack calls and David Lee had an early hook because of some quick whistles. Rarely did both teams have their best units on the floor – and, of course, Golden State never will because of the injury to Andrew Bogut – and during the rare stints when Griffin and Iguodala were able to be on the floor, they were tentative because of how poorly the officials were calling the game.

It’s possible that Blake’s early exit threw everything out of whack for the Clippers, who have come to rely on him more than ever this season, and it’s certainly true that the Warriors can more easily find a replacement for Iguodala than the Clippers can for Griffin. If foul trouble doesn’t play a major role in game two, then the Clippers may win handily against a Warrior team that is missing its defensive centerpiece.

But then again, the Warriors showed something in this game that is almost assuredly going to continue to cause problems for Los Angeles no matter who is on the floor for them: Mark Jackson is willing to go small again, and the Warriors play extremely well on both ends of the floor when Draymond Green is inserted at the power forward spot. The Warriors were insane defensively when Green was on the floor, limiting the Clippers to 78.5 points per 100 possessions during his 22 minutes. Even Harrison Barnes was great when he was asked to play power forward, and he had the play of the game in the fourth quarter when he blocked Chris Paul’s lay-up attempt in transition with two minutes to go before getting back on the other end and drilling a three that put Golden State up by two.

What’s even more troubling for the Clippers is that the Warriors destroyed their defense even when it was Lee and Jermaine O’Neal sharing the floor, as Lee’s expert passing in the paint helped lead to numerous defensive breakdowns of the Clippers. In the first half DeAndre Jordan was doing an adequate job protecting the rim, racking up five blocked shots, but in the second half he was nowhere to be found, sucked in often by dribble penetration with nobody else on the backline there to help the helper. Again, it’s tough to evaluate the Clippers’ overall performance because of how little Blake played, and putting Glen Davis on the floor for any length of time will lead to some defensive issues, but the Clippers had no rim protection in the second half and they got slaughtered on the boards, allowing 15 offensive rebounds for the game.

Blake is obviously one way for Doc Rivers to counter Golden State’s smallball attack as he can get him on the block and have him attack Green downlow, but another flaw emerged in this game for the Clippers, and it’s one that could wind up being fatal for the Clippers if they don’t adjust: They can’t guard Stephen Curry on high pick-and-rolls.

Curry is an offense all unto himself. A simple screen-and-roll with him up top can result in countless breakdowns for the opposition, whether it’s someone slipping up and giving an inch of space to launch a three or the backline rotations not being quick enough to recover for the big man that had to come up to prevent Curry from stepping into a shot. The Clippers chose to trap Curry on his high screen-and-rolls, and with Lee being such a great passer and decision maker on the move, the Warriors were comfortable using the pick-and-roll as an invitation to bring a Clipper big away from the rim. Curry would wait until the perfect time to hit Lee on the roll, allowing for Jordan or Griffin or Davis to come out far enough to make it difficult for them to scurry back into the paint. The result was driving lanes for Lee, who was able to get a few buckets at the rim and find shooters on the weakside as the Clippers were forced to breakdown to protect the paint.

Take a look at a sampling of Golden State’s tremendous ball movement against the trap in this one. And remember, all of this happens because the Clippers are frightened by the idea of Curry coming off one of those picks and launching a three-point attempt.

Los Angeles will have to change things up going into game two. All season long they’ve had Jordan and Griffin become comfortable sagging back on pick-and-rolls on their ICE coverage, but in this one they decided to come out and be aggressive to keep Curry from beating them. Well, even though it’s a dramatic shift in philosophy, having their bigs play a little further back and forcing Curry to beat them without getting others involved may be an optimal strategy, or at least one worth trying after their original plan was torched in game one.

The Clippers should be fine on the other end. Paul was brilliant in this game despite his late free throw misses and six turnovers and J.J. Redick was on fire from deep. If they can get Jamal Crawford’s game out of the gutter and a full performance from Blake, they have to like their chances going forward. That said, the Warriors took the fight to them in this game and Curry showed that even when he’s not lighting up the scoreboard himself, he can still have a dramatic impact on the outcome.

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Before this series, it seemed radical to suggest that the #1 seeded Pacers may have to take the player that they’ve built their entire, incredibly successful, defensive scheme around off the floor because of how he matched up with the 8th seeded Hawks, who finished the season six games under .500, but you can’t argue with it after game one. Whether it was by directly involving him in a pick-and-roll or having him hang around the perimeter to guard a spot-up shooter, the Hawks exploited their schematic advantage time and time again, running pick-and-pops with the floor spaced with shooters, putting the Pacers at odds with their principles.

Indiana wants to clog the paint and keep ball handlers out of the middle of the floor, but against the Hawks starting five, there is no weak link to sag off of to help pack the paint, and the usually statuesque Hibbert is required to leave his comfort zone to guard Atlanta’s stretch bigs. At first, the Pacers stuck to their gameplan and let the Hawks bigs get some open looks on pick-and-pops, but as the game wore on and they started drifting further and further out to guard the shooters, Jeff Teague began ripping apart their interior defense, routinely blowing by George Hill, who had no help on the backline thanks to Atlanta’s floor spacing bigs.

Just look at how much space there is behind the initial defender and how beautifully Teague goes about getting by his man to get into the wide open lane.

Teague was excellent, putting up 28 points and five assists, and the Hawks also got a huge game out of Paul Millsap. When the pick-and-roll game stalls for Altanta, Millsap is the one player that the Hawks can count on to get something going on his own, and he wound up with 25 points and eight boards for Altanta, in addition to hitting a pair of threes. And though Kyle Korver had an off night by his standards, the Hawks got him some really clean looks off some pretty pindown and curl screen plays, and they’re likely to be there again in game two. Picking up the slack for Korver was DeMarre Carroll, who played a hell of a game, scoring 12 points, pulling down 10 boards (five offensive), hitting a couple of threes and playing some really good defense on Paul George.

The worst part about this game for the Pacers wasn’t necessarily that they lost, it’s that they got down by 20 at one point in the fourth quarter and the team started slumping its collective shoulders like we saw many times during their tumultuous stretch to close out the regular season. Coming into the game the team preached about having a clean slate in the post-season, but they showed the same signs of losing faith in each other when things got tough in this one.

And let’s be honest here, Indiana’s struggles don’t have everything to do with attitude. It plays a part, but the real issue here is that the Pacers just can’t score the basketball efficiently, and despite solid games from George and Lance Stephenson in this one, there’s just nothing else there aside from the occasional C.J. Watson outburst. George Hill is better suited for a utility role like the one he filled for the Spurs, not as the creator for an offense that doesn’t have any space, David West struggled with foul trouble and never got going, Luis Scola was 0-of-6 from the field and Hibbert has always been an average offensive player at best unless he’s got a colossal size advantage.

Indiana’s offensive ineptitude finally caught up to them when their defense slipped even the slightest bit, and against a team like Atlanta that further minimizes the impact of Indiana’s usually stellar defensive scheme, the Pacers are in big trouble now that they’ve surrendered homecourt advantage, something I’m sure can only damage what was already a deteriorating team psyche.

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You have to credit the Grizzlies for fighting their way back into a game that they trailed by 25 in during the first half. Memphis didn’t even make a shot outside of the paint for the first 23 minutes and 59 seconds of this game, finally getting a three to go at the halftime buzzer. The came out strong in the third against a Thunder team that clearly thought they had closed the coffin on them in the first half, putting together a 31-13 run that made it a game going into the fourth quarter. The Grizzlies even cut Oklahoma City’s lead to two in the fourth when Mike Miller hit a three with 8:45 to go in regulation, but that shot was just about all the Grizzlies had left in the tank. They wouldn’t score another field goal over the next three mintues of game time, allowing the Thunder to go on a 13-1 run that put the game out of reach for good.

Most of the credit for Memphis strong third quarter effort has to go to Tony Allen. He held Durant to 5-of-14 shooting, allowing just 13 points compared to the 20 points Durant dropped on his teammates on 73% shooting. His activity off the ball often prevented Durant from even getting a touch, a familiar sight after seeing Allen do this to Durant twice over the past two post-seasons, and he created turnovers that led to easy buckets for the Grizzlies on the break, which was huge for a team that struggled to create good looks in the halfcourt all game long

Even though Memphis made up some ground in this one, it still feels like the gap in talent between these two teams is too large. The Grizzlies just have no space offensively, and it’s just something have to accept because Allen, who, despite a decent shooting outing in this game, remains an impotent outside threat, is their only defender that can slow down Durant. I’m sure Conley will rebound after his poor shooting performance in this one, but the Thunder also have the length and athleticism to throw at Conley all game long and there help defenders can be aggressive in digging down on him when he drives, too. If there’s any hope for the Grizzlies in this series, they’ll need Allen to replicate those same results each and every night and hope that Conley and Marc Gasol can work enough magic in the two man game to create any kind of rhythm for their offense.

But right now, I wouldn’t bet on that happening.

The Warriors Aren’t Dead Yet

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When David Lee went down with a hip injury in game one, the Warriors were facing six point deficit with about 11 minutes left in the game. In the league’s most hostile arena and without one of their key offensive cogs, the Warriors were staring at an uphill battle to take home what had appeared to be a very winnable game up until the moment that Lee went down riving in pain.

To my surprise, the Nuggets were never able to land a knockout punch on the Warriors, and Golden State was able to hang around. When Stephen Curry drilled a three with 14 seconds left to tie the game, I thought for sure the game was going to overtime. But then the Warriors had another horrible break go against them: Andre Miller weaved his way around Draymond Green, who graded out as one of the best one-on-one defenders in the league this year, and banked home the game-winning shot with no time remaining, capping off a surreal 28 point night (18 in the fourth) for someone that scored more than 20 points just three times this season.

Losing to the Nuggets under those circumstances has to be a killer, mostly because there was a real shot for the Warriors to win a game against a team that never loses at home, only a 37-year old point guard that has never been a great shooter was knocking down everything he looked at. Assuming Denver’s other players would step up in game two and factoring in the loss of Lee, stealing one of the first two games of the series, which is generally considered to be a must for a true underdog to have a shot, seemed extremely unlikely.

But the Warriors didn’t let that belief slip into their minds; Mark Jackson’s best attribute as a coach is his ability to galvanize his team, and he had his men believing that their season wasn’t close to the brink just yet. Equally important to Golden State’s collective belief in themselves is the adjustment that Jackson made to his starting line-up in order to replace Lee. In game one, Jackson called upon Carl Landry to replace Lee for the majority of the fourth quarter, but rather than sticking with him as the new starting power forward, Jackson got with the times and went small, inserting Jarrett Jack into the starting line-up, sliding Klay Thompson down to small forward and Harrison Barnes into the unfamiliar role of stretch four big.

Golden State’s starting line-up of Jack, Curry, Thompson, Barnes and Andrew Bogut played 20 minutes last night while no other Warrior line-up was on the floor for more than five minutes. That starting unit was ridiculously effective for the Warriors, scoring 122.1 points per 100 possessions while holding the Nuggets to just 83.9 points per 100 possessions (small sample size alert, but that’s a net rating of +38.2 points per 100 possessions). Collectively the group shot 62% from the field and 55% from three and they more than held their own on the board because of the presence of Bogut and the superb effort of Barnes.

Barnes was tremendous for the Warriors last night, providing additional spacing to their offense, competing defensively, making an impact on the boards, knocking down some open shots and even providing the Warriors with some one-on-one offense. The Warriors put Barnes in the Kobe or Carmelo areas on the floor on the wing and asked him to attack the defense at an angle. Whether he was matched up against a smaller player because a switched pick-and-roll or was simply facing off against a Denver big man because the Warriors were playing small, Barnes gave the Warriors a few very important buckets out of isolation sets.

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Here’s an example of the Warriors giving the ball to Barnes on the deep wing and clearing out for him to work. He’s got Anthony Randolph on him here, so he uses his speed advantage on the big man to get by him. He uses a jab step, drawing Randolph a bit closer to him, and drives with his left hand towards the basket.

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Barnes gets a great deal of separation from Randolph as he begins his drive, and with Carl Landry screening off Kenneth Faried from helping, Barnes has an open path to the rim. That said, Randolph is an incredible athlete himself, and he actually recovers pretty well on this drive and gets in good position to block Barnes’ shot attempt, but the rookie forward was having none of it, switching up his dunk in mid-air to uncork one of the nastiest reverse jams you’ll ever see.

This slam came in a big spot. Corey Brewer had just a hit a three to bring Denver back within 10 and the Nuggets looked to be putting something together. But every time they made progress last night, the Warriors had an answer.

It is important to note that Barnes’ emergence as a stellar small ball four and the team’s success without Lee doesn’t mean that Lee isn’t a valuable part of this team. Though he may be the worst defensive player in the league, he’s one of the most dynamic bigs in the NBA, and his ability to do just about everything from the elbows makes Golden State’s offense flow at an elite level. In this particular case, though, with the Nuggets starting traditional small forward Wilson Chandler at the four and possessing enough length and athleticism to deter Lee’s effectiveness, Barnes is a better option. The Nuggets ignored Barnes as a spot-up shooter in game one, but he may have earned a bit of their respect in this one, and if the Nuggets start paying any attention to him, that opens up more space for the Warriors’ other offensive weapons to operate.

And when you get guys like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson space, they are going to make you pay big time. I love watching the Warriors play because their playbook is full of some off-ball goodies that they use to free up Curry and Thompson for open jumpers. Take a look at this set that the Warriors used late in the third quarter last night.

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Golden State is going to make Denver’s defense work with this simultaneous action at both elbows. On one side, they’ll cross screen for Curry, and on the other there is a pindown screen for Draymond Green.

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But instead of using the pindown, Green simply shifts down to the block, followed by Landry, who will set a staggered screen for Curry to come off and catch the ball for a three-pointer in the corner.

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The staggered screen works, as both Corey Brewer and Andre Iguodala are in the paint and not in a position to get to Curry. Anthony Randolph has to be stepping out here and putting a hand in the passing lane, but he doesn’t appear to be aware that the best shooter on the planet is about to be wide open from three. Randolph eventually reacts, but it’s too late to prevent the red hot Curry from getting a clean look at the rim.

Thompson did not seem to be the beneficiary of many open looks off set plays last night, which makes his 8-of-11 shooting performance (5-of-6 from three) even more impressive. Thompson was able to have such a good game without getting open off Golden State’s sets because he’s one of the most intuitive players in the league and he is always working to find the open spot on the floor. Whether he’s running to the line in transition, getting himself open off an offensive rebound or simply reading the help defense and sliding to the open spot, Thompson is always sneakily finding ways to get open.

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Here the Warriors are running some of their standard simultaneous action with Curry on one side and Thompson on the other. The result of this play is going to be a Jack drive, but where the play is made is when Thompson cuts across the baseline to get to the left corner.

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Jack times his drive perfectly (he may not have been doing this on purpose, but I’d like to think so). As Thompson runs across the paint his man, Brewer, sees the Jack drive and decides not to stay with Thompson but to instead stay in the paint to provide help on the drive. Jack sees all of the help defenders in the paint for the Nuggets and adjusts his shot mid-air, swinging the ball out to Thompson for a wide open three. This shot was huge, too, as the Nuggets had just gotten the lead down to single digits.

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Here we have Thompson reading the help defense. Brewer is taught to have a foot in the paint to contest this Curry drive. If Thompson were to stand still, Brewer could do a pretty good job getting in Curry’s passing lane and recovering to Thompson if Curry decided to pass. But Thompson realizes this and will fade to the corner, something Curry knows because it’s exactly what he’d do.

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That’s too easy for Thompson.

***

With the amount of offensive firepower that the Warriors have on the perimeter – not to mention a very solid playmaker in Jack that can also hit open shots and a big man in Bogut that can facilitate from the post or elbow and make an impact downlow – you can’t count out this Golden State team even if they’ve lost one of their better players. The Nuggets are a putrid outside shooting team (and we’ve seen the Warriors go zone more than a few times in the first two games), so the Warriors are going to have a chance in every game if Curry and Thompson simply have average days.

The injury to Lee may have put a damper on the Warriors getting any further than the second round, but against an equally banged up Nuggets team that needed a miracle night from Andre Miller to break even at home in this series, they have a shot.

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