The NBA playoffs are finally here. The regular season is a seemingly never-ending grind. Teams crisscross the country for six months, playing three and four different opponents every week. Games blend together, injuries pile up, and the contenders just try to survive in one piece. The Jazz and the Pacers, who were left for dead after the departures of their stars, can count their seasons as a success no matter what happens over the next two weeks. The rest of the field will be judged by how they fare in the postseason. Their first 82 games were just a drawn-out waiting process.
The game itself is different in the playoffs. Teams get through the regular season by playing to their strengths, determining their identity on both sides of the ball, and maintaining consistency on a night-to-night basis. All that goes out the window in the postseason. Game-planning is taken to another level, as each coaching staff adjusts their strategy and tweaks their rotations to attack their opponent’s weaknesses. By the end of a seven-game series, the two teams know each other intimately. There are no secrets in the playoffs.
Everything starts with individual matchups. Even if two players who play the same position aren’t guarding each other every trip down the floor, whoever can have a bigger impact on the game gives his team an edge, whether it’s a big man dominating the boards or a guard controlling the tempo. Great players squaring off is what makes the playoffs fun. We can’t see another round of Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James until the NBA Finals, but there are plenty of fascinating matchups in the first round:
Kyle Lowry vs. John Wall
The stakes couldn’t be higher for the two All-Star point guards. Lowry is one of the biggest reasons the Raptors have been a playoff underachiever over the past four years. He has a 51.4 true shooting percentage in 52 career playoff games, compared to 56.4 in the regular season. Toronto is banking on Lowry being fresher this time around. The Raptors are deeper and more talented than they have ever been, which has allowed head coach Dwane Casey to eliminate some of the wear and tear on his star guard. Lowry is averaging only 32.2 minutes per game this season, more than four minutes fewer than his average over the past four. If he falls flat again, the calls to break up this team will return with a vengeance.
Wall’s future in Washington is even more uncertain. He has struggled with injuries all season, and the Wizards’ best stretch came with him in street clothes. They just seemed to have more fun without him, adopting the slogan “everyone eats” to emphasize a more democratic style of play rather than Wall dominating the ball and doling it out as he sees fit. Washington could avoid a salary cap Armageddon if it dumps Wall, who is owed $189 million over the next four seasons.
Toronto should be a massive favorite in this series, given how much better the Raptors have been this season, but their past playoff failures still hang over them. The 2015 first-round series between these two teams seems like ancient history, but all the key players from Washington’s dominating sweep are still there. One of the things that stands out from that series is just how much better Wall was than Lowry, who looked like a shell of himself while struggling with a succession of nagging injuries:
Wall vs. Lowry (2015 Eastern Conference First Round)
The Wizards will need a repeat of 2015 to pull off what would be a historic upset. It’s certainly possible. Wall is significantly bigger and much more athletic than Lowry; he has a level his counterpart just can’t reach. Washington has a chance if he can dial up his individual defense and swallow up Lowry at the point of attack, while consistently getting into the lane on the other side of the floor and knocking down open 3s when the ball swings back to him. Given the way Wall has played this year, though, those are some awfully big ifs.
James Harden vs. Jimmy Butler
Butler came back from a torn meniscus to drag Minnesota into the playoffs, with 31 points, five rebounds, and five assists in the Wolves’ 112-106 OT win over Denver in a win-or-go-home game on Wednesday. He will have to be even better against Houston, which swept Minnesota in the regular season, beating the Wolves by an average of 15.8 points per game. He has to outplay Harden, the overwhelming favorite to win the MVP, even though he will be guarding Harden and Harden won’t be guarding him. According to the tracking data at NBA.com, Butler was the primary defender on Harden in 94 possessions this season, while Harden guarded Butler in only 50.
The Wolves need Butler to use his size to get over screens and prevent their big men from getting left on an island against Harden. They have no one else who can do it. Andrew Wiggins, for all of his physical gifts, is still incredibly inconsistent defensively, and they don’t have any other wing defenders who can cross-switch with Butler. There isn’t much defensive versatility on their roster: They start two traditional big men and a traditional point guard, and their only 3-and-D player off the bench is second-year swingman Marcus Georges-Hunt, who rarely plays.
On the other end of the floor, Houston will throw waves of defenders at Butler to keep Harden from having to expend too much energy. Even without Luc Mbah a Moute, who will likely be held out of the first round with a dislocated shoulder, they still have Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker, both of whom have the size to prevent Butler from using his chiseled frame to play bully ball against them. Butler was getting MVP talk before his knee injury, and he can show why he was in the conversation against the guy who’s going to win it.
Damian Lillard vs. Jrue Holiday
Holiday has the almost impossible task of trying to slow down Lillard, who’s playing the best basketball of his life, averaging 26.9 points and 6.6 assists per game on 43.9 percent shooting while leading the Blazers to the no. 3 seed in the Western Conference. What many fans may not realize is that Holiday is playing some of the best basketball of his life, too. Holiday has filled the void created by the absence of DeMarcus Cousins, averaging 19 points and 6.0 assists on 49.4 percent shooting and playing like a legitimate second star next to Anthony Davis.
Like Butler, Holiday will have to handle a massive two-way role in this series due to the defensive limitations of his teammates. He guarded Lillard on 127 possessions this season, while Lillard guarded him on only 65. The Pelicans don’t have any other options. The days of Rajon Rondo being a defensive stopper are gone, and Holiday (6-foot-4 and 205 pounds with a 6-foot-7 wingspan) is roughly the same size as E’Twaun Moore, their starting small forward. Putting a smaller defender on Lillard is a nightmare, since he can pull up off the dribble and shoot 3s from almost anywhere on the court.
Holiday’s offense could help his defense, since the easiest way to slow down a shooter like Lillard is to get into his legs and make him work on the other end of the floor. Dame has spent most of his time against New Orleans this season guarding Moore, a spot-up shooter who won’t threaten him off the dribble. If Holiday can take advantage of Evan Turner and C.J. McCollum, he could force Portland head coach Terry Stotts to abandon the cross-switch and keep Lillard, who is playing the best defense of his career, on him.
Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Brad Stevens
There are no good individual matchups for Giannis. He lit up Boston just like he did everyone else this season, averaging 33.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 5.0 assists on 53.9 percent shooting in four games between the two teams. It will take a team effort from the Celtics to even try to contain him, and it will be fascinating to see how Stevens tries to game-plan against Giannis with a limited roster that doesn’t include Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, or Gordon Hayward.
Al Horford has received the primary defensive assignment on Giannis this season, with Boston’s other big man hedging off one of Milwaukee’s limited centers and playing a de facto zone behind him. The problem is that Horford, even with the help and the luxury to sag off of Giannis on the perimeter and dare him to shoot, is just not fast enough to contain him off the dribble. At some point in the series, Boston’s pair of young wings, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, will likely have to receive a trial by fire and guard Giannis.
The big question hanging over the series is how interim coach Joe Prunty will use Giannis. He has been more willing to play small-ball lineups with Giannis at the 5 than his predecessor Jason Kidd, which opens up the floor and makes it more difficult for the Celtics to overload against him. Giannis can play all five positions on offense and guard all five positions on defense, and his versatility gives his coach an almost unlimited amount of flexibility in terms of the lineups he uses. That same versatility is why LeBron has always been able to punch above his weight in the playoffs. Giannis can start putting himself in that conversation with a dominant performance against Boston.
Myles Turner vs. Kevin Love
Indiana doesn’t appear to have any good matchups for LeBron, so going over the other ones in this series is a mostly academic process. However, it is important from a long-term perspective for the Pacers, who need Turner to establish himself as a legitimate cornerstone next to Victor Oladipo after an up-and-down regular season. There’s not much data to go on, as Turner played only one game against the Cavs this season, on December 8, long before they remade their team with a series of blockbuster trades at the deadline.
This version of the Cavs plays Love at the 5 with four perimeter players around him, which will force the famously defense-averse big man to guard Turner. Turner is still figuring out who he is on offense. He has a fascinating skill set, with the ability to shoot 3s, put the ball on the floor and finish at the rim, and score out of the post. However, too much offensive versatility can be a bad thing at times for a young big man. The good news for the Pacers is that almost anything should be able to work against Love, who is in the 7th percentile of defenders against isolation plays this season, according to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports.
Love is going to give up points as a small-ball 5. Cleveland’s gambit is that he will score more the other way to make up for it. That was certainly the case in the Cavs’ second-round sweep of Toronto last season, in which Love mercilessly shot Jonas Valanciunas off the floor. Turner will have to prove he can stay attached to Love on the perimeter. In a best-case scenario for Indiana, Turner will dominate Love on offense so much that he’ll force Cleveland to play one of its more traditional big men (Larry Nance Jr. or Tristan Thompson) without the shooting range to drag him out of the lane. It still won’t be enough to beat LeBron, but it will put Turner back on the map when it comes to being a future star.