NBA Playoff Preview: Potential wrinkles

For Knicks to beat Heat, Amar’e must be used sparingly

The last matchup between these two teams became an unmitigated iso-fest. If the series goes the same way, with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony essentially taking turns trying to breakdown the opponent’s defense, the outcome of could very well be decided by which of those three has the most impactful set of games (a fact that obviously tilts in Miami’s favor). A few other key things would have to break New York’s way (like the Heat’s supporting cast continuing to miss their fair share of open looks), but the biggest ones all center around how head coach Mike Woodson’s structures his rotations.

The Knicks should be playing a tight nine-man rotation this series and two of those nine (Baron Davis and Jared Jeffries) should have their minutes limited to no more than 10 or so a game. Woodson and his staff must also search for every opportunity to sneak Steve Novak and his game changing shooting onto the floor. With James and Chris Bosh manning the opposing frontcourt, those spots could be hard to find. But when situations arise that Novak can find a decent matchup, like say an odd cross-match that assigns him to Joel Anthony, Woodson must get him into the game.

The final (and perhaps biggest) piece of the rotation puzzle for Woodson all centers on his use of Amar’e Stoudamire. Much has been written about the defensive shortcomings that arise when Amar’e and Melo share the floor, a problem that will be magnified when the Heat go small with LeBron at the four.

Woodson could counter by drastically altering his use of Stoudamire. While it sounds extreme, limiting Amare’s minutes to somewhere around 15-20 may actually improve New York’s efficiency on both ends of the floor. Woodson also might not want to stop there. He could choose to bring him off the bench as the backup center when Melo and Tyson Chandler are out of the game.

This would be a win-win for New York. Without Stoudamire, Anthony can go to work surrounded by shooters (Novak, JR Smith), defenders (Shumpert, Fields) and Chandler for the majority of the game. Meanwhile, Stoudamire could feast on Miami’s second unit during the brief stretches when Wade, James and/or Bosh are resting.

With enough tinkering, there just might be a way for New York to score a huge upset. The irony in this series is that despite all the star power, an unheralded coach’s decision to sit one of those stars for the majority of the game could be the difference.

Is the Juice on the Loose?

Zach Randolph’s form is, to many, the key variable in how deep Memphis can go in this year’s playoffs. However, it may be the “other sixth man” in Memphis that holds the keys to a Finals appearance.

Despite his spot in the Grizzlies’ closing lineup, OJ Mayo still finds his game-to-game production to be somewhat inconsistent. We all know Memphis will defend and turn their opponents over, but the thing keeping them from advancing deep into the playoffs will be their offensive output, particularly from the perimeter. If Mayo can pick-and-roll his way into a string of highly efficient offensive nights, it could change the course of a series.

Thunder, Spurs can expect long waits until Round Two

Both the Jazz and Mavericks face first round opponents against whom they went 1-3 in the regular season. The Jazz should be proud they even made the playoffs, but the defending champs are far from peak form. Due to injury, age-related decline, mid-season turmoil and off-season turnover, the Mavs are playing very mediocre basketball at the wrong time.

All season long, their offense has missed Tyson Chandler’s ability to run to the rim for a lob after any type of screen.  Whether it was diving off the pick-and-roll or slipping a pin down, the threat of a thunderous (no pun intended) Chandler dunk opened up more for the Mavs than most realize. That trait would be especially useful against OKC’s slow-footed Kendrick Perkins.

The one saving grace is that the Mavs zone-heavy defense has done a good job keeping Russell Westbrook in check during their regular season matchups. Westbrook has seen his shooting numbers dip from 45.7% overall to 39.2% in his four meetings with Dallas, and we saw him struggle in last year’s Western Conference Finals as well. While factors like this may prevent a sweep, it would be a major surprise to see that series get to six or seven games.

The Jazz, meanwhile, isn’t likely to fair much better. The Spurs happen to hold the No. 1 spot in Defensive Rebound Rate, possibly negating one of Utah’s biggest strengths; pounding the offensive boards. Not to mention, it’s unlikely Utah’s 21st ranked defense will withstand San Antonio’s devastating offensive attack.

While the Jazz’s recently unveiled “big” lineup featuring Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors has been amazingly effectively, particularly on the offensive glass, it still doesn’t hide the fact that none of the three are accomplished pick-and-roll defenders. Look for the Spurs to pull Jefferson out as high as much as possible and let Tony Parker, Gary Neal and Manu Ginobilli attack him at will. Thanks to a great home crowd, Utah may nab a win, but a sweep is much more likely than this one going past five games.

All this adds up to a very interesting possibility. The Grizzlies-Clippers and Lakers-Nuggets series each look headed for six or seven games, so the Spurs and Thunder could find themselves with quite the wait between rounds should they sweep their opponents. It’s interesting to note given that a potentially long layoff could affect their performance in the first game back in Round 2. A game that, if lost, could flip the homecourt advantage in the series.

The Return of Iso Joe

Atlanta has manufactured a competent offense throughout the regular season with a smorgasbord of offensive actions. From post-ups to spread pick and rolls, Atlanta has maintained a respectable offense (16th most efficient according to John Hollinger’s ratings) with a mixture of concepts and personnel. However, none of those actions resemble anything like the danger of LeBron James in transition, Steve Nash in a pick-and-roll or Carmelo Anthony in an isolation. Against a stingy defensive team like Boston, lacking an elite threat could mean death by suffocation.

Perhaps one way to manufacture points could be to reach into the past and return to the principle concept of the Mike Woodson era in Atlanta; Iso Joe. With Avery Bradley likely to draw Joe Johnson as his defensive assignment, Atlanta head coach Larry Drew may try to slow the game down and pound the ball into Johnson in the mid-post. To keep Boston’s attacking defensive schemes at bay, Drew could also surround his Iso-Joe attack with a nifty, new lineup.
With Kevin Garnett manning the pivot opposite him, Josh Smith could slide to the 5, Vlad Radmanovic (37.3% from 3) and Marvin Williams (39%) could man the wing spots and Jannero Pargo (38.4%) handles the point guard spot. That look will force Boston to choose between letting Johnson operate one on one versus the smaller Bradley or closeout on a cadre of shooters (and one explosive finisher) on any pass out of a double team.

In a series where points go to die, this first team to find a wrinkle that generates consistent offense may be the one that wins.

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