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  • Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Playoff Previews: Chicago Bulls vs. Washington Wizards

    The playoffs begin on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) when the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie to offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason.

    Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test

    If you’ve been removed, understand the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards have done exactly as they’ve been told. Even if their fans should be a little uneasy about where each team is at.

    Washington’s financial and future salary-cap fixture isn’t exactly a Knicks-styled nightmare, but it did give up just about all its assets to cash in on the absolute top potential of this current lot. It’s made the playoffs – all right! well earned! – but this was a squad built to move into the first or possibly second round of the playoffs and little else. The team has benefitted, for once, from relatively good health, with the possible exception of big man Nene, who has returned to the rotation and factors to be a huge part of the team’s playoff run.

    The Randy Wittman-led squad sustained the defensive work last year’s lottery bangers turned in during the second half of the season, the group covers angles well and talks to each other, and despite some individual holes the group as a moving outfit is to be feared on that end. The offense remains comparatively lacking, but John Wall is a gorgeous speedster in the open court, flying off defensive rebound caroms and hand-offs, Trevor Ariza turned in a throwback year, and Marcin Gortat has been exactly as advertised as a pick-and-dive big man. Not bad for a center who didn’t even get to share a training camp with his new teammates.

    Gortat became a Wizard at the expense of a first-round pick, a last-ditch move by longtime general manager Ernie Grunfeld in an attempt to finally make the playoffs on John Wall’s back. Washington fitfully dotted over and below the .500 mark for the better part of the pre-All-Star run, but they enter the postseason having won 44 games – a few ticks above what was reasonably hoped for even after the deal for Gortat.

    There are cracks, befitting your typical Eastern squad. For a group full of athletes, led by a young backcourt featuring Wall and second-year guard Bradley Beal, Washington rarely gets to the free-throw line. Wall is the league’s absolute best in spotting shooters in the corner for a 3-point shot, a devastatingly efficient look at the hoop, but the Wittman-inspired offense still relies far too much on middling mid-range 2-point jumpers.

    The team is right where it hoped to be, for better or (future) worse. The same can’t be said about the Bulls, even if the team also comes straight out of central casting.

    A solid offseason and undefeated exhibition season led many to rightfully conclude Chicago would return to the ranks of championship contenders entering 2013-14. A healthy and springy Derrick Rose was understandably unsure and visually a step slow to start the season, though. The team also was used to Joakim Noah initiating possessions from the high post, and Noah himself needed most of October and November to return to game shape following a groin injury. The result was a disastrous start to the year, even with Rose on board.

    Rose went down with a meniscus tear just 11 games into Chicago’s season, and with Noah still on the mend, the group struggled to a 12-18 start. Luol Deng was traded for no 2014 on-court compensation just after New Year, and the team looked like a lottery loser just two months after hearing championship whispers. Coach Tom Thibodeau then moved a healthier Noah to the elbow on offense, the team set to clicking on both sides of the ball, and Chicago ended up winning 34 of 50 games following the Deng trade.

    They talk, they sweat, they move the ball offensively and they don’t give up. Everything you expected in October, just without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng on board.

    That isn’t to say the regular season was a waste for both teams. Both fan bases enjoyed the highest of highs when following either squad. Rather, this is just to credit two helplessly flawed but professional and, at times, inspiring rosters, two that should do their cities proud this spring. This series won’t be pretty. These are two defenses that will make sure of that much, but these games should be close, and the actually will be wonderfully brutal at times.

    You can count on such things from these two teams.

    Prediction: Bulls in 6.

    Dan Devine's One Big Question

    Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.

    Can Nene give the Wizards' frontcourt the heft and versatility to pull the upset?

    The Wizards enter this series as underdogs, but while the 18-point beating they suffered at Verizon Center two weeks back is freshest in our minds, Washington actually took two out of three from Chicago this season. There were several common threads in the Wizards' wins. John Wall was awesome, averaging 21 points, nine assists and 4.5 rebounds per game. Martell Webster cashed in on the rare 3-point looks that Chicago's arc-choking defense allowed, going 6 for 9 from deep in the two meetings. And then there was Nene, Washington's hulking, often injured and, as a result, often overlooked power forward, getting brutal and banging bodies with the Bulls' bigs.

    Washington's defense operates at an entirely different level when Nene's on the floor. Last year, the Wizards gave up nearly four more points per 100 possessions without the big Brazilian than with him, and shut down opposing offenses at a level surpassed by only the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies with Nene in the middle. The difference has been even more pronounced this season, with the Wizards allowing 104.4 points per 100 possessions (which would've ranked 16th among 30 NBA teams over the course of the full season, between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers) when Nene sits, and just 99.2 points-per-100 (which would again be good for third, behind only the Pacers and Bulls) when he plays.

    Opponents have taken a smaller share of their overall shots in the paint with Nene there than when he sits, which makes sense, because hurtling into a 6-foot-11, 260-pound bull isn't especially appetizing. They've made a lower percentage of the ones they do take, too, which stands to reason, since this particular bull -- while never a huge shot-blocking force -- is nimble enough to be able to track trespassing guards, contest their tries and push them into more difficult shots.

    With Nene on the court during their two losses to the Wizards, the Bulls took more midrange jumpers than they did shots in the paint. For a team like Chicago that struggles so mightily to score -- they were one of just four teams to average less than one point per possession this year, and only the lottery-bound Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers had more punchless offenses -- and relies so heavily on creating opportunities through precise interior passing and the high-post orchestration of Joakim Noah, walling off the paint can make the process of trying to score enough to win excruciating.

    Wizards opponents have also taken fewer 3-pointers, and made them less frequently, with Nene in the mix than out of it, owing in part to his gifts as a pick-and-roll defender. As Bullets Forever's Mike Prada notes, Nene's bulk-belying footwork and ability to guide and redirect ball-handlers coming around screens helps keep the structural integrity of the Wizards' defense intact, allowing wing defenders like Webster and Trevor Ariza to stay a step closer to their marks on the perimeter without having to double-team or make hurried rotations to prevent easy baskets, which is precisely when kickouts for open 3-point shots tend to happen.

    Chicago's far from a great pick-and-roll team, ranking 17th in the league this season in points scored per possession on plays finished by ball-handlers in the screen game and dead last on those finished by the roll man, according to Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting data. But they'll run a lot of high screens when resurgent reclamation project point guard D.J. Augustin's in the game, and he's proven pretty adept at scoring off these actions, ranking 15th among NBA players in points scored per possession after taking a screen and shooting nearly 49 percent from 3 on such plays. If Nene can help stall those actions out and give his guards the opportunity to recover to contest shots or cut off passing lanes, another important source of offense for Chicago could fall by the wayside.

    The worry, though, as always, is that Nene's not healthy enough to stay on the floor long enough for the Wizards to enjoy the full benefit of his services. He's been on a minutes restriction, playing a grand total of 83 minutes since missing nearly two months with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, and after logging 24 minutes in a win over the Miami Heat on Monday night, Nene said he was "surprised" by the increase in his workload following two outings of less than 20 minutes.

    "I'm looking good, but I hope we stick with the minimum we've been talking (about)," Nene said, according to J. Michael of Comcast SportsNet Washington. "If I push myself too much, I can pay the price."

    That's going to be an awfully tough line for Wizards coach Randy Wittman to walk, because all the other things that Washington does well -- the pace-pushing dribble-penetration of Wall, the scintillating two-man game between Wall and center Marcin Gortat, the lights-out perimeter shooting fed by Wall's ability to bend defenses and fire pinpoint passes into shooters' kitchens -- are things that the Bulls' remarkable defense tend to snuff out really, really well. If Washington can't fight fire with fire -- or, since we're talking about dampening effects, "water with water," I guess -- then the whole team might wind up paying the price.

    Prediction: Bulls in 6.

    Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability

    Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.

    Judging a series’ entertainment value is obviously a matter of taste — anyone who reads this section of our previews without accounting for my personal biases is missing the point. Nevertheless, I do my best to gesture towards some kind of hypothetical average viewer, a person who abides by the majority’s understanding of what constitutes a good playoff series. For instance, I didn’t make the entire Dallas-San Antonio bit about Monta Ellis, and he’s my favorite player in that series by a wide margin. It’s just that, for most people, he’s not the center of the matchup’s meaning.

    Wizards point guard John Wall is not necessarily the overwhelmingly key figure of this series, but to me he’s the player most worth matching. That’s largely because I’ve been enamored of Wall since his earliest days as a top high school prospect, when he looked like a revolutionary player capable of turning the point guard position into an unholy hybrid of the classic floor leader model and something akin to LeBron James’s all-court mastery. Wall didn’t play to that level in his first three seasons in Washington, but he has been a franchise player since signing a questionable max-level deal over the summer. He was a deserving All-Star, and his potential mastery of Chicago’s point guards figures to be the Wizards’ best chance of controlling this series. More than that, though, Wall has a chance to announce himself on a national stage and begin to insert himself into the NBA’s elite. This series could be the start of something big.

    Yet he is not the only major player in this series. In fact, the main points of interest may be found not in any one player, but the extent to which each team develops its identity. After a lengthy period of malaise, the Wizards are now a bona fide playoff team with a young core that should only get better. Making the postseason was a meaningful accomplishment in itself, but a strong performance vs. the Bulls could having them to considering great expectations heading into 2014-15.

    The Bulls are in a much less familiar situation, because it’s unclear what the team will even look like entering next season. For the second year in a row, Tom Thibodeau has been unable to rely on former MVP Derrick Rose. Last season, the Bulls covered for their star’s absence with a lineup assembled from discarded scraps and held together by bits of string and weak adhesive. This season, the Bulls have turned that quick fix into a rallying cry. Led by Joakim Noah, they resemble a post-apocalyptic band of roving marauders just looking to survive. Chances are next season will be very different, both because Rose could be healthy and due to potential shakeups this offseason. In other words, their laudable sense of desperation could actually be a final stand for this hardscrabble outfit.

    It may not be the prettiest series, but it has more storylines than most.

    Rating: 6 out of 10 Awkward Sideline Interviews with President Obama

    Prediction: Bulls in 6.

  • Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Playoff Previews: Miami Heat vs. Charlotte Bobcats

    The playoffs begin on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) when the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie to offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason.

    Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test

    For those just hopping to the NBA season, understand the Charlotte Bobcats didn’t luck or back their way into their second (and final, considering the franchise’s imminent name change) playoffs.

    Sadly for Charlotte, the Miami Heat didn’t, either.

    You didn’t hear much about the Miami Heat this year, comparatively, because a lack of a 27-game winning streak will do that to a nation’s fancy. The Indiana Pacers held the Eastern Conference’s best record for nearly every day of the 2013-14 regular season, the San Antonio Spurs finished with the league’s best regular season record yet again, and Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant will likely and rightfully lope away with the NBA MVP award, ending LeBron James’ run with the hardware.

    The Heat are the champs, though. And not in the “we’ll-call-them-the-champs-until-someone-knocks-them-out” way. That doesn’t mean that 2013-14 was a triumphant regular season turn, however.

    The team won only 54 games, fewer than the Chicago Bulls (57) and Los Angeles Lakers (58) did during their three-peat conquerings in 1993 and 2002, and with Miami mostly working in an embarrassing Eastern Conference that saw the Heat lose twice to the Philadelphia 76ers and twice to the Boston Celtics. Dwyane Wade missed 29 games not just because he sat out on the second night of back-to-backs, but also because of a worrying late-season hamstring pull. Ray Allen shot, gasp, just about an average mark from 3-point range.

    This is also a team that may just have 15 or 16 games between now and the start of the Finals. This is a team that can run James for huge heaps of minutes, while Wade works at his leisure, with Chris Bosh fitting in wherever needed. Allen’s 3-point percentage starts over on Sunday. Shane Battier grows angel wings. Erik Spoelstra gets to hammer out a game plan against the same opponent, over and over, rather than working against four other coaches in five nights.

    Pity those poor Charlotte Bobcats. Kind of.

    These Bobcats earned this. “Rookie” head coach Steve Clifford should be a Coach of the Year candidate, and had his team been on national television more often he’d probably have won the damn thing. The Bobcats have evolved into a team with solid depth, and most importantly to a playoff drive, the group defends like mad in spite of the presence of Al Jefferson on the floor.

    Of course, the Bobcats wouldn’t be nearly where they are currently with Jefferson, who turned in a career year some six years after tearing his ACL, working in a new environment with a (damn good) point guard in Kemba Walker who isn’t exactly what we’d call “pass-first.”

    If you haven’t seen Big Al, prepare for a throwback. Over 22 points and 11 boards in 35 minutes a game, despite needing the season’s first two months to work his way back (mostly on the court) from an ankle sprain. Low-post goodness, in a league that frowns on such things. Touch and footwork and a needed go-to option after a play breaks down for a team that ranked just 24th in offense.

    He should have made the All-Star team, but in a lot of ways it was best that he missed it. The All-Star Game wastes talents like Jefferson, and those few days off in mid-February likely helped the player that led Charlotte to a 20-9 record following a showcase that tends to exclude players of a Bobcatian nature.

    The ride is likely over. James is basically as tall as Jefferson. Walker had a very good year, but he shot 39 percent to Wade’s 54 percent. Bosh is floating, and the other Heat veterans have been through this before. It’s true that, somehow, Charlotte runs deeper than Miami, but none of this will likely matter when James spies Josh McRoberts’ too-cute entry pass from a mile away, swipes it and turns it into two points before Bobcat fans can even recall they’ll become the Hornets again this fall.

    Fair-weather NBA fans? Happily introduce yourself to the Charlotte Bobcats, because this is a team worth watching.

    Also, re-introduce yourself to the Miami Heat, because this is a team worth fearing.

    Prediction: Miami in 4.

    Dan Devine's One Big Question

    Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.

    How much energy will Miami have to expend in Round 1?

    LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh begin their bid for a fourth straight trip to the NBA finals against a Bobcats team that looks to be heavily overmatched and whom the Heat swept during the regular season. A closer look at the season series, though, suggests that what appears to be a squash might not be quite as breezy as Erik Spoelstra might like.

    While the Heat did go 4-0 against the Bobcats, two of those games were nail-biters. There was a one-point Dec. 1 win in which the Big Three all played, but Charlotte point guard Kemba Walker (27 points on 10 for 22 shooting, six assists) largely got where he wanted, and a mid-January overtime victory that saw James (34 points, eight rebounds, six assists) and Bosh (25 points, seven rebounds) carry the day for a resting Wade to come back from a seven-point halftime deficit.

    One blowout came while All-NBA-caliber Charlotte center Al Jefferson was sidelined with an ankle injury, which represents a sizable asterisk. The other happened when James became Death, Destroyer of Worlds. (That one still holds up.)

    Still, while the Heat stumbled to the finish line by going 13-14 after March 1 -- including some games, to be fair, where they weren't exactly going all-out for the W -- Charlotte played perhaps their best ball of the year. The Bobcats won three straight to finish the regular season and nine of their last 11, including three tough overtime wins against fellow Eastern playoff squads (the Brooklyn Nets, Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls).

    The Bobcats went 16-9 after the February deal to import Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour from the Milwaukee Bucks, a move that added (some) long-range shooting and secondary ball-handling, and helped boost the Bobcats' offense from a dreadful 25th in points scored per possession pre-trade to a middle-of-the-pack 16th afterward. Another key helper: Josh McRoberts, the beautifully coiffed power forward whose fantastic touch as a high-post passer (five dimes per 36 minutes, assisting on nearly 22 percent of his teammates' buckets while he's on the floor) has paired perfectly with Big Al's left-block mastery, and whose long-range shooting (36.1 percent from 3-point land) has helped give Jefferson room to cook.

    Gerald Henderson's production has dipped virtually across the board this season, but the versatile wing tends to be a bellwether; he's shooting 45.4 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from 3 in Charlotte wins, and just 41.3/32.2 in losses. When he tries too hard to create his own offense, he can hurt more than he helps, but when he simply plays his role -- making smart cuts to take advantage of the attention Jefferson draws, or finding openings on the perimeter to be available for spot-up shots off kickouts -- he can threaten.

    Rookie Cody Zeller has come on since the All-Star break, shooting 50 percent and averaging nearly eight points and five rebounds in 18 1/2 minutes per game by crashing the offensive boards, running the floor and ducking in off the weak side to dunk dump-off passes. Chris Douglas-Roberts has gone from scrap-heap signee to valuable piece in head coach Steve Clifford's rotation, adding complementary scoring and rebounding while providing defensive versatility on the wing and making some big shots.

    Charlotte is a patient, careful team that turned the basketball over on a league-low 12.9 percent of offensive possessions, and allowed the league's fewest fast-break points and points off turnovers per game this season. They're great at limiting opponents to one shot, leading the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage and finishing seventh in second-chance points allowed. There's real talent and toughness here, actual players who do things; these aren't the Bobcats you remember.

    They're still not going to spring an upset, though.

    Even dropping out LeBron's outlier 61-point explosion, Miami still hammered the Bobcats' No. 6-ranked defense in their other three games, scoring at a rate (109.1 points per 100 possessions) commensurate with their second-best-in-the-NBA full-season mark. The Bobcats' pack-the-paint scheme did reduce in the share of shots Miami took in the lane -- 44.7 percent of Heat field-goal attempts against Charlotte came there, down from 47 percent on the season as a whole -- but Miami converted the exact same share of them (62.9 percent) while shooting even better than their full-season mark on the midrange shots Charlotte concedes with its coverage.

    With James' ability to prosper against any defense, Bosh's elite midrange shooting and Wade presumably ready to rock after having his workload managed all season, Miami has the right weapons to attack Charlotte's defense. While Jefferson will likely continue beasting on Miami's small front line -- Big Al's averaged a shade over 25 points and 15 rebounds against the Heat this season, shooting 57.4 percent -- Charlotte doesn't figure to get reliable enough deep shooting to keep Miami from swarming the interior. And even if the Cats can knock down some pressure-relieving 3s early, that'll probably just remind Miami that it's late April, and that it's now time to flip the now-infamous switch that turns their closeouts and rotations from solid to terrifying.

    The key to this postseason could be whether Charlotte forces Miami to flip that switch early. If Miami's offense hits the ground running smoothly enough for the defense to get away with just-good-enough effort, then the Heat will be in good shape moving forward. But if the Bobcats can keep their late-season form going and land some shots on Miami early, and if Jefferson can dominate enough to steal a game in Miami, the Heat may find themselves having to put in work that could come back to bite them during the grueling rounds to follow.

    The 'Cats won't go easily, but I think the resolution will skew closer to the former than the latter. I respect what Jefferson and Clifford have done enough to think they'll notch the first (and last) win in Bobcats postseason history at home, but Miami should be able to keep its powder dry with stiffer challenges ahead.

    Prediction: Heat in 5.

    Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability

    Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.

    The Heat have been one of the league’s most exciting teams during the Big Three era, regularly putting forth amazing showcases of the best contemporary basketball has to offer. However, this team cannot escape narrative. The best Heat moments, either good or bad, have involved games and series that appear to serve as referenda on LeBron James’s place in basketball history, or the moral rectitude of building a team around stars obtained in free agency. In other words, the Heat need the right context to reach their full watchability potential — otherwise they’re just a garden-variety group of generationally unique stars.

    It’s safe to say that the Charlotte is not the team to bring out Miami’s full possibilities this series. Like the Milwaukee Bucks in last spring’s first round, the Bobcats are a team of limited talent. What head coach Steve Clifford has done this season is quite amazing — the Bobcats are a genuinely effective squad with with the East’s third-best defense by points-per-possession and a big man in Al Jefferson who could ravage the Heat’s interior defense. But they’re not a sexy team by any stretch. Sunday’s Game 1 will mark their first national TV appearance of 2013-14, and many casual fans may still consider them fodder for late-night TV monologue jokes.

    That’s not to say that this series is wholly unwatchable. The Heat won’t rise to their peak watchability until later in the postseason, but viewers are likely to see one or two unbelievable plays from LeBron and Co. Plus, despite not being world-beaters, the Bobcats do have a lot to offer. At the very least, they will provide something new to discover for all but the most committed League Pass devotees. The playoffs last a pretty long time, so seek out the unfamiliar while you still can.

    Rating: 4 out of 10 Angry Tweets About LeBron Being a Loser

    Prediction: Heat in 4.

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