2021 NBA play-in preview: Lakers’ big dilemma vs. Stephen Curry’s Warriors; all eyes on Celtics’ Jayson Tatum

The 2021 NBA play-in tournament is upon us. If you need a full rundown on how it works, we have you covered, but if you’re already here then you’re probably up to speed on the basics. What follows is a preview of the 7/8 and 9/10 games that will be […]

The 2021 NBA play-in tournament is upon us. If you need a full rundown on how it works, we have you covered, but if you’re already here then you’re probably up to speed on the basics. What follows is a preview of the 7/8 and 9/10 games that will be played on Tuesday and Wednesday. Let’s start with the headliner. 

1. Golden Flow State

When the Golden State Warriors’ offense is flowing like it’s supposed to, it looks like they have an answer for everything. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green have seen every defense there is, and they know just how to punish you if you relax for a fraction of a second. Lately they’ve been doing a whole lot of punishing: They won 15 of their final 20 games, while scoring 120.1 points per 100 possessions with Curry and Green on the court.

Curry is doing more heavy lifting than ever before on offense, but the Warriors still basically look like the Warriors when he’s playing off Green. The Los Angeles Lakers appear to be running into them at the wrong time, but it’s not as if this is some shocking hot streak — in the 1,314 total minutes Golden State played with Curry and Green on the court and raw rookie big man James Wiseman on the bench, it scored an identical 120.1 points per 100 possessions.

An average Warriors possession (excluding second chances) lasts 13.2 seconds, the third-fastest mark in the league, right in line with their tempo throughout the Steve Kerr era, per PBPStats.com. There is a bit more pick-and-roll than there used to be, but Kerr is still using the best off-ball player in NBA history off the ball, and, as the esteemed Steve Jones pointed out, their old tricks still work:

They might not work against the Lakers, though. Los Angeles had the second-best defense and fourth-best halfcourt defense in the regular season, per Cleaning The Glass, which filters out garbage time, and those numbers would have looked even better if LeBron James and Anthony Davis had been healthier. They surrendered just 102.5 points per 100 possessions with their two superstars on the floor, and that number dropped to an absurd 88.2 per 100 in the halfcourt, per CTG.

The biggest swing variable is who winds up next to James and Davis. There’s a compelling case to be made for going without a traditional center from the jump, moving Davis to the 5 and treating Curry the same way the Lakers treated James Harden in last season’s playoffs: Blitz his pick-and-rolls, double-team him late in the shot clock, mix in some zone, junk the game up and dare his less threatening teammates to beat them. Nothing will surprise Curry and Green, but all of these strategies work much better than they normally do when James and Davis are executing them. 

A couple of potential problems with that approach: The Warriors likely won’t get as stagnant as the Houston Rockets did, and even with Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee it took Los Angeles a few games to remove them from the rotation entirely. With Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell on the roster, this is a more delicate situation. I expect one or two of them to get at least some playing time, during which Curry will target him/them relentlessly. 

2. It’s time to concern-troll the Lakers’ halfcourt offense again

If you didn’t know any of the context, you might think the Lakers were cooked: Their halfcourt offense ranked 23rd in the regular season, and now they’re going up against the fifth-best halfcourt defense, per CTG. All Green does on defense is absolutely everything, messing up the opposing offense almost as thoroughly as Curry breaks defenses. The Warriors held teams to 91.4 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt during their 15-5 home stretch, the top mark in the league. 

Making matters worse, Golden State is also elite at keeping teams in the halfcourt. The story the numbers tell is that Los Angeles needs to compensate for this by dominating on the boards and getting the Warriors in foul trouble. But while this might be part of the plan, the full story is more complicated and less dire. The Lakers’ halfcourt offense was average with James on the court this season and and decidedly above-average with both James and Davis. There is perhaps no one in the history of the sport who has exploited matchup problems like James, and he has plenty of experience picking on Curry. Analysts like me were skeptical of Los Angeles’ supporting cast and shooting last postseason, and we all looked stupid in the end.

Were this a seven-game series, it’d be a safer bet to assume the Lakers figure out what lineups work and find a winning formula. In one game, though, and with no real continuity over the course of the regular season, are you sure you can count on them to get the buckets they need? 

3. All eyes on Tatum and Walker 

Much like the Lakers’ fate might be decided by how many times the Warriors force Drummond to defend high ball screens and dribble-handoffs, the Washington Wizards’ fate might be decided by how their bigs fare when dragged away from the paint. Containing Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker will be a challenge. 

Of Washington’s three bigs, Daniel Gafford is by far the most mobile. After praising his quickness and vertical spacing on Monday, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said that Gafford allows the Wizards to “do a little bit more of the switching and blitzing and those type of things.” Primarily, though, regardless of whether he, Robin Lopez or Alex Len is on the floor, they’re a drop team. No team surrenders fewer shots at the rim, per CTG, and no team surrenders more midrange shots, which sounds awesome until star players are walking into pull-ups they can make in their sleep. If Jaylen Brown were healthy, he’d be ecstatic about the matchup. 

Washington wants to “make guys uncomfortable, as much as we possibly can,” Gafford said. “Make ’em take shots that will help us succeed in the long run, make them take shots that they’re not really used to taking, and having them get downhill and just finish over our length, really.” This can be effective against some teams, but Tatum and Walker are used to taking the shots that Washington concedes.

I’m curious whether or not Tatum can have one of his occasional high-free-throw games, given that the Wizards have a fouling problem. Mostly, though, this is about him and Walker making jumpers. When they’re in rhythm and hitting off-the-dribble 3s, the drop scheme doesn’t work. If Washington has to adjust, then you’ll know Boston is in a good place. 

4. No easy buckets! 

The Wizards are here because they’ve been on an absolute tear, winning 17 of their final 23 games with the ninth-best offense and ninth-best defense in that stretch, per CTG. On offense, they’ve essentially taken on the personality of Russell Westbrook: They attack the paint relentlessly, rank second in transition frequency and rank first in midrange shot attempts. 

They also, crucially, get to the free throw line constantly. This is an issue for the Celtics, who have also struggled to defend without fouling all season, ranking fourth from the bottom in opponent free throw rate. 

“Our penetrating guards are dynamic,” Washington coach Scott Brooks said, “and we want them to get to the bucket and create opportunities to get to the free throw line or get some early fouls so we can get into the bonus.”

While Boston is generally good at limiting rim attempts, that’s never easy against Westbrook when he’s healthy and the floor is spaced. It’s unclear how much Bradley Beal will be limited by his hamstring injury, but if he’s close to his normal self then he’ll get buckets in all sorts of ways. As well as doing typical star-scorer stuff, “he’s one of the best cutters in the league off handbacks and DHOs,” Stevens said. “You can say all day long — ‘Don’t get backcut,’ or, ‘Don’t cut off his body’ — but he’ll get you off his body and he’ll get to the rim on some of those things.” And then there’s the feisty Ish Smith, who led the Wizards comeback in their regular-season finalé.

Washington shoots fewer 3s than any team in the league, and it doesn’t have a ton of playmaking beyond those guards. The Celtics can put Tatum and Marcus Smart on the stars, but it’ll be a collective effort to keep the Wizards off the line and out of transition and bring those flaws to the fore.

5. Charlotte’s sweet spot

The Charlotte Hornets are a young team that moves the ball as much as anybody and loves to run. It is not all that surprising, then, that they finished the regular season with the league’s fifth-highest turnover rate, per CTG.

When the Hornets are at their best, they have a certain tempo, regardless of whether they’re going against a set defense or on a fast break, and they also manage to take care of the ball. Their opponent, however, is about as aggressive as it gets on the other end. The Indiana Pacers ranked fifth in forcing live-ball turnovers, per PBPStats.com, so Charlotte can’t afford to be sloppy.  

“We gotta be smart,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “Obviously in playoff-type basketball, postseason basketball, whoever wins the possession game is going to give themselves a great opportunity to win this game.”

Charlotte is entering the play-in on a five-game losing streak, and the clutch magic it has been able to conjure for most of the season has been harder to find lately. Borrego, however, believes those shots will go in as long as they play to their identity. 

“We don’t want to play a slugfest, halfcourt-style game,” he said. “I think that’s what we’ve seen in some of these fourth quarters. We’ve slowed down in fourth quarters and it’s cost us. It puts a lot of pressure on our halfcourt offense.” 

Another way to win the possession game and take pressure off of the halfcourt offense: Dominate the boards. Indiana’s most glaring problem is that it was the league’s worst defensive rebounding team this season, and it’ll be magnified against a Hornets team that finished 10th in offensive rebounding rate, per CTG. Charlotte is particularly adept at finding 3-point shooters after offensive boards. 

6. Valuable real estate

In a lot of ways, Indiana and Charlotte mirror each other. “We’re built in a similar vein,” Borrego said. “Both teams, we both play fast, we both move the ball. You look at our assist percentage, both teams (are in the top five). Ball movement, body movement, transition, shot profile — this is a very similar matchup.” Let’s zero in on that shot profile. 

These teams are virtually identical in terms of Cleaning The Glass’ “location effective field goal percentage,” which measures how heavily a team’s offense is tilted toward rim attempts and 3s rather than floaters and midrange jumpers. This is a fancy way of saying neither team is fond of the midrange. 

One difference, however, is that, while the Hornets put up a ton of 3s, Indiana’s personnel dictates that it does not. Instead, the Pacers live in the paint. Domantas Sabonis bullies people on the block, T.J. McConnell is seventh in the league in total at-rim assists and Doug McDermott has transformed into one of the most efficient and prolific finishers around.

Charlotte ranked 27th at limiting rim attempts in the regular season, which does not bode well here. Aggressive as it tends to be on defense, it should strongly consider going under screens so it can keep Indiana’s guards from getting where they want to go. There are lineup issues to consider, too — if the Hornets are concerned about matching Sabonis’ size, they can go with Bismack Biyombo or Cody Zeller at center … but Sabonis’ life will be much harder on the other end if he has to contend with the Charlotte’s smallball lineup, featuring P.J. Washington and Miles Bridges as the “bigs.” 

As usual, everything goes back to Sabonis. The Hornets have a real dilemma here, but they’d love to go small if they can get away with it. Sabonis needs to force their hand. 

7. The running of the Grizzlies 

The Memphis Grizzlies were the best transition team in the NBA in the regular season, by virtue of running more than all but two teams and scoring more efficiently than all but two teams when doing so, per CTG. Aside from their love affair with floaters, this has been their defining offensive attribute. Memphis had a bottom-five halfcourt offense, but it tried to make up for this by forcing turnovers at a high rate, which fueled that transition game. 

The Grizzlies must hope that, if and when they really need it, Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. will come through for them in the halfcourt. Jackson’s presence has helped their spacing, and Morant went off the last time he was in this situation. Heading into a win-or-go-home game against the San Antonio Spurs, though, they must really hope they won’t need it.

Can Memphis’ normal formula work in this matchup? It’s a classic something-has-to-give scenario. San Antonio had the best transition defense in the regular season, per CTG, and it also had the second-lowest turnover rate. How many times have you heard someone say that the Spurs don’t beat themselves? This is the Popovich way. 

8. DeMar and Dejounte vs. Memphis’ stingy defense 

San Antonio takes a lot of floaters, too, and it leads the league in long 2s, per CTG. The Spurs have always prioritized getting clean, in-rhythm shots rather than shots from “efficient” locations, and they happen to employ two proficient midrange marksmen. DeMar DeRozan has made 50 percent of his pull-up 2s, and Dejounte Murray is right behind him at 46 percent, per NBA.com. 

Led by DeRozan, Murray and the hyperaggressive Keldon Johnson, San Antonio drives more frequently than all but one team in the league. Memphis’ defense has been terrific all season, with a wide range of perimeter defenders capable of staying in front of them. In the pick-and-roll, though, I wonder how this plays out.

Whenever DeRozan’s old buddy Jonas Valanciunas is on the floor, you just know San Antonio will go at him. If this proves successful — and if DeRozan and Murray rise to the occasion, it will be — then the Grizzlies will have a decision to make: leave their best roller and offensive rebounder out there, or go with Jackson or Xavier Tillman at the 5 spot. Those guys can switch or defend at the level of the screen much more credibly than Valanciunas can, but these trade-offs are tough.

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