What We Learned – West

The NBA may have stumbled onto a new platform for their playoff coverage. Starting the playoffs on Saturday and having them end late Sunday night maximized the league’s exposure. It didn’t hurt that nearly every game went down to the last minute and 8 seeds are beating or nearly shocking number one seeds. The top 2 seeds in the west lost their opening games for the first time in more than 20 years. This weekend had more of the NCAA first round, win or go home atmosphere, with upsets the norm and questions aplenty.

One question I have: what is the value of a “go-to-guy” in the playoffs? Out west, the lack of a go-to-guy seemed to doom the Spurs and Nuggets. In the East, we saw Melo take ill-advised threes in the closing minute against the Celtics. With that, let’s explore what we thought and what we learned after watching game 1. I am focusing on the Western Conference today (I have a real job, ya know) – tomorrow the East.

We thought… the Grizzlies front line of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol would physically and statistically outperform Tim Duncan and co.
The Spurs actually out rebounded the Grizzlies 40-38 yesterday but Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol each had monster games outperforming a rejuvenated and spry Tim Duncan. Zach’s 25 and 14 along with Marc Gasol’s 24 and 9 overwhelmed Duncan who still had a nice game of his own with 16 and 13 (including a key offensive rebound and assist to Matt Bonner who hit a three pointer in the closing minute to give the Spurs the momentary lead). After the game, Duncan admitted he was playing Gasol while keeping “half an eye” on Zach Randolph. Both players took advantage offensively. Bonner made two big threes down the stretch but DuJuan Blair and Antonio McDyess must help Duncan on the boards. McDyess and Blair combined for only 7 rebounds.

We thought… the Lakers would pound Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom against the small Hornets front line.
This series is not about Kobe Bryant. I know that will be hard for Kobe to believe, but he needs to take a backseat in this series. Trevor Ariza can guard Kobe. He’s long and he plays Kobe chest to chest. Of course, Kobe automatically takes this as a personal challenge and forgets that he has teammates. Chris Paul can annoy Kobe Bryant when he drives to the lane- CP3 is always a league leader in steals for a reason. The matchups for the Lakers are in the front court. Get the ball to Gasol! Nine shot attempts against Carl Landry is awful game management by the Lakers. that’s on Phil. Yes, Gasol needs to demand the ball, but as a big, that is all he can do. He needs someone to facilitate the offense and execute the proper game plan –  and the game plan must run through Pau. This is elementary stuff. There no excuses for yesterday’s poor performance by the two-time defending champs.

We thought…the Denver Nuggets would have problems down the stretch without a “go-to-guy.”
Having a go-to-guy in the NBA is a double-edged sword. Having a player, like Kobe Bryant, who demands and accepts the pressure of a game-deciding shot is a luxury and eases the burden for the rest of the team. Problems occur when a team has a player who thinks he is a go-to-guy (see ‘Melo vs Celtics last night or Andre Iguodala vs anyone) and ignores the offense or takes a bad shot with the game on the line just because he has the green light. Knowing the “go-to-guy” will take the shot in the final moments, makes it easier on coaches who can game plan defensively against one player instead of all 5 on the floor. The Nuggets are without that Kobe-like closer and therefore must rely on a different guy each night to make it happen. Because of this, execution is critical. Failure to execute a play designed for a specific player will ultimately place guys in decision-making positions that are out of their comfort zone, which leads to poor or untimely shots – especially on the road. Both occurred for the Nuggets last night in the final minute of their 107-103 loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Kenyon Martin shot a long 22-foot two pointer from the left wing with the shot-clock winding down that was well out of his range and rhythm. Felton’s attempt was especially atrocious, heaving a contested three-pointer with 12 seconds left, down 3. Felton should have remained patient, attempted a higher percentage two-pointer (if available) and then stretched the game with fouls.

We learned… the Spurs can win this series – if Manu is on the floor.
Matt Bonner hit two straight threes for the Spurs in the final moments and were a Shane Battier three away from sealing a game one victory against the pesky Grizzlies. Still, Ginobili handling the ball down the stretch places everyone back in their respective roles – where they are most comfortable. What makes the Spurs the Spurs is that they they easily accept their roles on the team and they, to a man, played them to perfection all year. Now suddenly their playmaker is out for game 1. Who fills that role down the stretch? That question was not answered yesterday. Ginobili has proven time and again that he can withstand the pressure with the game on the line. He has hit 3 of the Spurs’ 5 FG in the final 24 seconds when they are down by 3 or fewer. Both George Hill and Richard Jefferson missed open threes that would have given the Spurs the lead or tied the game in the waning seconds.

We learned…CP3 wants you to remember he’s still the best point guard in the league.
Derrick Rose had a sensational game 1 against the Pacers, but for my money, Chris Paul displayed one of the greatest pure point guard performances in NBA history last night against the Lakers. The statline: 33 pts (16 in the 4th), 7 boards, 14 asts, 4 stls doesn’t even come close to telling the story. Chris Paul making Aaron Gray look good –  now that right there tells it all.

                    Chris Paul making Aaron Gray look like a competent big man.

We learned…the Thunder are lacking a third scorer.

Charles Barkley nailed this on the head last night in his post-game coverage. The Thunder received insane performances from Kevin Durant (41 pts, 9 boards) and Russell Westbrook (31 pts, 6 boars, 7 asts). We have come to expect those type of stats from Durant and Westbrook during the regular season. But it will not be the norm for the Thunder throughout the NBA’s second season. Oklahoma City must find a third scorer and James Harden will have to be that guy for the Thunder. After the All-star break, Harden was the leading scorer of those who came off the bench in the NBA. He needs to take some pressure off KD35 and Westbrook, if the Thunder want to advance in the playoffs. The Thunder also need more contribution offensively from Serge Ibaka (1-8, 3pts). Ibaka can hit the 8-foot to mid-range jump shot. If he can show the Nuggets he can make those on a consistent basis, it will open up the lane for himself, Durant and Westbrook.

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