NBA

Swarming defence of Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers is a problem for Cleveland Cavaliers

Jay Asser 16/04/2018
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Victor Oladipo pressures Cleveland's Kyle Korver.

LeBron James’ path back to the NBA Finals was always going to tougher this postseason than in years past, but few expected the test to come right away against the Indiana Pacers.

Indiana delivered the biggest Game 1 shock of the first round when they not only beat James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but smoked them in a 98-80 win on the road.

It’s not exactly a revelation that Cleveland’s stay in the playoffs will be short-lived if LeBron isn’t the best player on the floor, but there’s more to this match-up than the individual play of James and Victor Oladipo, who shined in the series opener.

Coming into the match-up, the Cavaliers’ defined weakness was their defence – and that certainly showed itself on Sunday – but it was on the other end of the court where the Pacers controlled the game.

While Cleveland didn’t help themselves by missing 26 of their 34 attempts from beyond the arc, Indiana’s swarming defence proved to be a handful.

The Pacers’ collective ball pressure, combined with the pick-pocketing ability of Oladipo, bothered the Cavaliers and kept them from getting anything easy.

Cleveland is a one-way team, so engaging in a grind-it-out style of game is a recipe for disaster because of their paper-thin defence that struggles to stop anyone.

LeBron’s ability to impose his will is the great equaliser, but at some point he won’t be able to do it alone.

Playoff P

Giving yourself a nickname is corny in its own right. Giving yourself the nickname ‘Playoff P’ is as corny as you can get.

But when you play like Paul George did in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 116-108 win over the Utah Jazz, you can call yourself whatever you want.

George splashed 8-of-11 triples for a game-high 36 points to look like the player that many thought would make the Thunder a title contender when he was traded from Indiana last summer.

He may not shoot the lights out like that again this postseason, but when George is aggressive and a threat to score, the Thunder look a lot scarier. Especially against Utah, who have limited offensive options outside of rookie Donovan Mitchell, George can make this series much shorter than expected if he operates as a primary option.

He was passive at times in the regular season and had a rocky finish to the campaign, but if Playoff P is here to stay, Oklahoma City’s ceiling is within reach.

Horford’s all-around brilliance

It takes a village to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo, but that task is made easier when you have someone like Al Horford.

The Celtics’ lone remaining healthy All-Star was at his absolute best in Boston’s thrilling 113-107 victory against Milwaukee, providing tremendous defence against Giannis on one end while being the centre of the offence on the other.

‘The Greek Freak’ will inevitably get his, as his 35 points in a decent, but not great, showing proved. But Horford made him work for a lot of his points and on several instances shut down his drives, using his length and strength to protect the rim.

Horford also made sure Giannis didn’t get to rest on defence as he posted him up at intervals, which either forced double teams or led to Antetokounmpo picking up fouls. Those fouls came into play in overtime when Giannis picked up his sixth to foul out of the game.

He’ll never be a volume scorer or an uber-aggressive player, but the perpetually underrated Horford is capable of being the main reason why Boston win this series.

Break in case of emergency

What a luxury it is to have two of the best isolation players in the league to bail you out.

Between James Harden and Chris Paul, the Houston Rockets have the ultimate back-up plans when their typical offensive attack isn’t clicking as usual – and they’re plans that have been used often.

That was the case in the 104-101 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, when Harden went off for 44 points by hitting some ridiculous step-back 3s in a contest that saw his teammates make just 3-of-25 from long range.

Minnesota may have missed their best chance to steal one as it’s not likely Houston shoot that poorly again. And if they do, there’s always the other way.

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NBA

Karl-Anthony Towns goes missing, James Harden lights it up and other stats in Houston Rockets' Game 1 win

Jay Asser 16/04/2018
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James Harden drives against Minnesota's Jimmy Butler.

It didn’t come easy, but the Houston Rockets got their playoff run started on the right foot with a series-opening 104-101 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Here are four stats from the game that stood out:

44James Harden’s points

The MVP frontrunner was cooking in the opener, scoring in every which way to burn the Timberwolves.

Can Minnesota play better defence again him? Yes. Jimmy Butler even said so afterward. But it’s not like Harden was getting a bunch of easy points. He only shot nine free throws – below his season average of 10.1 – and many of his makes were contested, especially the flurry of step-back 3s he rained down.

Harden may be the best offensive player in the league and sometimes he’s going to have his way, regardless of the defence. The Timberwolves will have to hope he’s not feeling it to this extent next game.

27.0% – Houston’s 3-point shooting percentage

Here’s some bad news for Minnesota: the Rockets may have just had their worst shooting game of the series… and it didn’t matter.

Aside from Harden, the rest of the Rockets shot a paltry 3-of-25 from long distance. That’s just not going to happen much going forward, if at all ever again.

Houston averaged 15.3 triples in the regular season, so there’s a good chance their shooting is going to improve in the next game. That’s a scary thought for the Timberwolves, who may have missed their best opportunity to steal one.

14.2%Karl-Anthony Towns’ usage percentage

Minnesota’s shot distribution was fairly balanced, with six players taking attempted at least nine field goals. Balance is good, but you also need your star players to be a bigger factor than what Towns was in Game 1.

The Timberwolves centre took just nine shots (making three) and was relegated to a bystander role in the offence, which has happened too often this season.

With Butler not looking like he’s 100 per cent, Towns has to be more of a focal point and Tom Thibodeau has to find ways to get him involved.

Strictly posting him isn’t the best strategy against the Rockets, who at times threw double teams his way, so the offence has to get a little more creative to create mismatches and put him in position to succeed.

-6Derrick Rose’s plus-minus

Speaking of usage percentage, the Timberwolves player with the highest mark in Game 1 was none other than Rose. That’s not ideal.

And yet, it’s not like he played poorly. Rose was fairly efficient in scoring 16 points on 7-of-14 shooting, while adding four assists in 24 minutes off the bench.

The problem is he was still a negative in plus-minus, which speaks to how little he helps on the other end of the floor. And in a series where Rose will have to guard the likes of Harden and Chris Paul, Minnesota will be in trouble if they have to rely on him this much.

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NBA

Ben Simmons shines in playoff debut as maestro of Philadelphia 76ers offence

Jay Asser 15/04/2018
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Ben Simmons nearly had a triple-double in his playoff debut.

So much for being thrown into the playoff fire as a rookie.

Ben Simmons didn’t just acclimate himself to the postseason atmosphere, he dominated with one of his typical all-around performances to lead the Philadelphia 76ers to a 130-103 blowout victory over the Miami Heat in his playoff debut.

The 21-year-old flirted with a triple-double by posting 17 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds as the Sixers extended their winning streak to 17 games, further proving that his spectacular rookie season is no fluke.

And Simmons did it all without Joel Embiid around to help share the responsibility as the centre continues to recover from a facial fracture.

“For me, just being more aggressive,” Simmons said on his approach without Embiid. “Attacking the rim. Knocking down free throws, when I get the opportunity. Moving the ball. Playing the way I play. I don’t need to take all the shots. I have guys who can hit shots. As long as I’m getting them open and good shots, we’re fine.”

Getting his teammates open shots is how Simmons thrived against Miami’s defence in Game 1.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra sagged his players off the 6-foot-10 point guard, daring him to shoot, and while Simmons struggled from the field in the first half – connecting on just 3-of-9 attempts – he played more of a playmaking role after the intermission by dishing nine assists in shooter-heavy lineups.

There will be times when the Sixers won’t shoot as well and Simmons will be needed to score more, but in his first playoff test, he was impressive.

“I expected him to rise to the moment, and I’ll expect him to do that in Game 2,” J.J. Redick said. “But he was awesome tonight. I love when he shows emotion, too. It’s great to see. He’s just got a quiet cockiness about his game that I love.”

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