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Big questions to decide who advances in West playoffs

Let's bounce around the big questions in three Western Conference series resuming with pivotal games tonight ...

Spurs-Grizzlies



Anyone besides Kawhi Leonard want to do stuff?

It is cliche, and usually inaccurate, to say any player almost "single-handedly" won an NBA game. Not with Game 4 in Memphis. Leonard damn near pushed the Spurs across the finish line by himself with a two-way run -- a prolonged Kawhi spasm -- of such unceasing, tenacious brilliance, you almost couldn't believe what was unfolding. "Hi. I am going to take the ball from you now, and then score a basket. Then I will take it again, except this time I will pass it, get it back, and hit a 3-point shot. Thank you for your participation."

The Spurs have scored 115 points per 100 possessions in this series with Leonard on the floor, and just 101 when he sits -- an extreme continuation of a trend that dogged them all season. Leonard needs more help, especially if the Grizzlies are going to trap him on the pick-and-roll:

That's a nice play by David Lee, an emergency replacement starter for Dewayne Dedmon in Game 4. I wouldn't be shocked if the Spurs stick with that setup even if Dedmon is over his illness. The Dedmon version of the starting five has been a disaster on offense all season, and Gregg Popovich's trust in Dedmon wavered after the All-Star break. (The group is minus-6 in 23 minutes so far.) Toss him the ball in Lee's spot there, and Dedmon isn't as comfortable making plays.

The Spurs sacrifice some rim protection and mobility going this route, but they don't need a ton of speed to patrol the Memphis offense. Randolph revels in bludgeoning Lee, and if Lee starts, that matchup could become a bellwether.

Even if Dedmon starts, expect Popovich to be ready with a quick hook.

Lee hits Parker there for an unguarded open 3, and the more dramatic move -- and maybe even the more effective one -- would be starting Patty Mills over Parker. The Grizzlies just aren't guarding Parker when he doesn't have the ball, and the more San Antonio leans on Leonard, the less he has it:

Parker has had two really good games in this series, one solid game, and one total no-show. That is probably a better hit rate than San Antonio can expect. They have needed his spinny off-the-dribble scoring. That skill is a hair more valuable when Leonard is on the bench.

The Spurs almost certainly won't do this with Parker. It is too desperate, too much of an insult to an historic player. Mills has been no better containing Mike Conley, anyway. More makes from Danny Green, and any at all from Manu Ginobili, retiring before our eyes, would solve a lot of these problems.

So would a little more life from LaMarcus Aldridge. Zach Randolph has stonewalled Aldridge on the block -- Z-Bo's defense in Memphis has been underrated -- and Aldridge can't munch as many pick-and-pop jumpers with the Grizzlies ducking way under every Parker screen. Seriously: I'm not sure any team has ever disrespected Parker's midrange jumper to this degree.

One counter Aldridge has explored: screening for Parker, and (semi-illegally) running downhill into Parker's man -- mashing him into the post, and creating two bad mismatches.

The Spurs generally haven't looked for Aldridge after those switches. Maybe they should.

Aldridge should feast on JaMychal Green when that matchup materializes. He came to life during the third quarter of Game 4 with a little bully ball on Green. More, please.

Green's minutes present an interesting inflection point. Aldridge can batter him a bit, but Memphis has only sniffed around the Pau Gasol-Green matchup at the other end. Green can hit open 3s, and pump-and-drive past slower bigs. Pau Gasol is slow. The Spurs have tried to avoid having Gasol guard his brother, which has often left him on Green. It feels like Memphis should put the elder Gasol through the ringer, especially in lineups featuring Green, Marc Gasol, and neither of Conley/Randolph -- groups that have struggled horribly so far, per NBA.com.

Who plays their shooters?

Both teams got braver in Game 4. Memphis risked some Troy Daniels minutes, and he should at least be out there when Leonard sits. Popovich dusted off Davis Bertans in crunch time, and he held his own. Bertans brings a unique dimension among San Antonio bigs, but it's unclear if he can survive against either Randolph or Gasol -- if Popovich uses him at all when both those behemoths are on the floor.

Regardless: Both teams should seize opportunities to play extra shooting. Memphis isn't winning this series without an outlier 3-point game at some point.

Can San Antonio generate some pace?

They are trying. Leonard pushes hard after almost every rebound. They should keep trying.

Can anyone guard Conley?

So far, no. Conley has torched Green, and even Leonard couldn't avoid getting switched off during Conley-Marc Gasol pick-and-rolls down the stretch of Game 4. That's a massively important ripple effect of Gasol draining 3s: Teams are afraid of leaving him open, which means they can't chase Conley over picks and have Gasol's man drop down to contain Conley. Sometimes, they switch instead.

Mills and Parker have been hopeless against Conley's shifty artistry. He tilts them off-balance with a hard dribble, or a shoulder fake, and gets where he wants to go -- usually into the middle, or back out to clown a big fella on a switch.

The damage has been even more severe when Conley drags Pau Gasol into the play; Gasol has looked awful defending in space.

Conley has also attacked one-on-one, without a screen. A bunch of lead guards -- John Wall in particular -- have mixed that in during these playoffs. It's a smart tactic in the right dose. No one can guard these guys alone; sometimes a screen just mucks things up by bringing a crowd.

I'm not sure the Spurs have a great answer. Conley is in full command of his craft. His confidence has caught up with his ability. He delights in the realization that he can be the first option.

The Spurs should probably hide Parker and Mills more often on Memphis' wings, though not on Carter, who bruised Parker in the post in the last minute of regulation Saturday. They could try trapping him, but they don't really have the personnel for it.

Can Memphis' secondary wings continue to match San Antonio's?

Decisiveness can mask a lot of limitations. James Ennis, Wayne Selden, and Andrew Harrison have caught the Spurs off-guard by acting decisively. (Daniels is always decisive, and the decision is to shoot.) They are attacking immediately when the ball swings their way, and even replacement-level guys can scoot by scrambled defenses when they drive without hesitating:

Meanwhile, Popovich reached in Game 4, playing Mills and Parker together for most of crunch time. Green has earned more leeway than that. I liked Popovich going back to Jonathon Simmons over Kyle Anderson for the last wing spot.

Watch those Kawhi acting jobs!

A fun nugget: the Spurs have inserted some tricky sets to spring Leonard for open 3s, and it turns out Leonard has a bit of the performer in him.

The Spurs line up for Ginobili to curl around the double-screen from Aldridge and Leonard on the right side; Leonard even waves dramatically (by Leonard's standards) for Ginobili to continue his cut.

And then, bam! Leonard pops out behind a surprise Aldridge screen. The Spurs have also used some decoy actions to get Leonard deep seals in the post. This guy ...

Jazz-Clippers



OK, now that we know who's playing, what are the matchups?

Austin Rivers is back, per a report by Adrian Wojnarowski, Rudy Gobert is here, Blake Griffin is out, and Gordon Hayward is presumably over a rare case of home-city playoff food poisoning. After some ad hoc rotations through four games, the coaches should have more certainty over who can play the remaining best-of-three.

Even so, the Clippers have to answer one big question: How are they defending Hayward and Joe Johnson when the Jazz go small? The matchups are easy in the starting fives: Marreese Speights takes Boris Diaw, and DeAndre Jordan gets Gobert. But when Johnson replaces Diaw, the Clippers have lifted Speights for a wing player better suited to chasing Johnson around the 3-point arc.

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute got the assignment in Game 4, but only because Hayward was puking somewhere. He can't defend both Johnson and Hayward. Paul Pierce can't defend anyone; the Jazz ran him ragged through pick-and-rolls until Doc Rivers benched Pierce in the second half. Wesley Johnson is not good.

That leaves junior Rivers, a rugged defender who often guards above his size. He has defended Hayward here and there, but the Clippers much prefer Mbah a Moute for that job. Rivers is too small to defend Johnson.

Still: Expect a lot of the Rivers-Mbah a Moute duo, and for the Clippers to switch as the Jazz toggle through all their cuts and screens. The Clips have blundered on too many switches, gaffes that produced some of Hayward's best looks:

They have to be better.

Switching gets less painful if Rivers steals some of Jamal Crawford's minutes in a group of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Rivers, Mbah a Moute and DeAndre Jordan -- a lineup that outscored opponents by a mammoth 20 points per 100 possessions in 82 minutes this season. What Utah and Johnson did to Crawford in Game 4 was straight abuse.

Redick would still be out there as prey, hiding on Rodney Hood or Joe Freakin' Ingles, but that is a competitive defensive lineup.

Perhaps the Jazz could upend all this by dumping Diaw from the starting five, or from the rotation entirely. That might be extreme, since the Diaw-Gobert-Hayward starting unit barely got to play. But the Diaw-Favors version put the Jazz in a hole, and Diaw hasn't offered enough on either end to steal power forward minutes from Johnson, Ingles, or even Favors.

The Jazz mothballed the Favors-Gobert duo in Game 4, a remarkable turn considering the years of anguish over whether that pairing represented the future of the franchise. Favors has only so many minutes in him, and every minute spent alongside Gobert cuts away at the time he can serve as Gobert's backup. But if they want to excise Diaw, trying the Favors-Gobert duo again is a way to buy time.

How does Utah handle Chris Paul on the pick-and-roll?

Gobert and Paul appeared to be feeling each other out in Game 4. Gobert mostly hung back, but Paul passed up some midrange jumpers, perhaps fearing Gobert's immense length:

Maybe Gobert can close that distance. Maybe Paul should test him. If Gobert can't, the dynamic changes.

Things got more interesting when Favors replaced Gobert: Utah scrapped its conservative base defense and trapped Paul high on the floor.

Griffin slices defenses apart in that spot. Jordan is tentative as a playmaker, so Utah dared him to try. He made a decent read here, but he missed open shooters on other plays; the Clippers can't win two more games with Jordan as fulcrum.

They have counters. They tried Mbah a Moute as a screener, baited the trap, and relied on Mbah a Moute to serve as a very, very, very, very poor man's Draymond Green:

They should experiment with other screeners, including Redick, though Utah will switch a lot of those combinations. They've had success extricating Paul with screens around half court in semi-transition, and the Clippers should continue to push the pace like hell on the slow-poke Jazz.

Dating to the regular season, Utah has never had an answer for LA's "45" set -- the one in which two screeners, usually Griffin and Jordan, set a monster double-pick for Paul. That play lost some sting without Griffin, but it still got Paul long runways and juicy switches in Game 4.

Who wins the Speights battle?

Gobert does not want to scamper around the 3-point arc against bench-heavy units featuring Speights at center, and LA didn't leverage that enough until Paul took charge in the fourth quarter. The Clips can get Speights an open pick-and-pop triple anytime they want against Gobert. Utah's only response in Game 3 was to send a third defender flying toward Speights, which only leaves someone else open.

One intriguing answer for Utah: Have Gobert "guard" Mbah a Moute, and chill near the rim, and assign a wing player to Speights. Hell, Utah pulled a version of this in their starting lineup: Hayward defended Speights, and Diaw took Mbah a Moute. (That also forces LA to criss-cross assignments if the Jazz get a stop, or risk a possession with Speights on Hayward. Gulp.) The Clips could yank Mbah a Moute, but that's a nice tradeoff for Utah.

On the flip side: The Clips experimented for one or two possessions (while Jordan rested) with Mbah a Moute on Gobert, and Speights hiding away on Diaw. They went away from that fast, and they might not have the chance to try it with Hayward back. But it's worth a shot, despite the obvious risk of Gobert gobbling rebounds: LA could switch Utah's dangerous, Gobert-centric pick-and-rolls, and keep Speights out of the central action. Utah is picking on Speights every chance they get.

Which DJ shows up?

Jordan played much of the first half of Game 4 in a malaise. He sat too far back in the pick-and-roll, and offered weak second efforts.

Jordan played passively, and let Utah ball-handlers too deep into the paint. Once the ball gets that close to the rim, the offense has a big edge -- even if they have to finish through tight corridors.

The area from the elbows down to the rim is the natural habitat for both Gobert and Jordan. Great pull-up jump shooters drag them out. A lot of this series comes down to a basic, almost mundane question: How many open pull-up jumpers does each team get, and how many do they make?

This is how the Clippers lose:

Forcing this turnover, when Hayward stumbled splitting a double team, is how they win:

Snuffing those shots isn't all on the respective centers, of course. Guards have to slither around picks, and stay attached at the hip to enemy pull-up artists. Mbah a Moute is great at that. Ingles has vaporized Redick. Crawford is bad at it, and Hood as a result is slowly emerging as the X factor the Jazz expected he could be.

Jordan is also carrying the heaviest load of his career. He has never averaged more than 34 minutes per game in the playoffs; he logged 36:54 in Game 4, and played the entire second half of Game 3. The Clippers need his offense almost as much as his defense. He is probably worried about foul trouble. He is a giant human. He is going to get tired.

Rockets-Thunder



A few quick notes, because 3-1 series aren't as interesting as stalemates ...

You can bet San Antonio and Memphis have watched Oklahoma City's strange strategy for defending James Harden pick-and-rolls. With some exceptions, the Thunder have invited Harden to drive. When Harden runs it with a center -- Clint Capela, or the suddenly unstoppable Nene Hilario -- the Thunder drop their own centers back into the paint, let Harden dribble at them, and have everyone else stay home on Houston's 3-point shooters. They want to defend the pick-and-roll two-on-two.

Things got wackier for parts of Games 2 and 3 on Harden-Ryan Anderson pick-and-rolls: Gibson hugged Anderson instead of helping at all, and watched Harden drive right by him with Andre Roberson in pursuit -- "Here, James, have a four-on-three." Jeff Van Gundy noted that he had never seen anyone use that strategy.

It has worked on at least some aesthetic level. Houston has attempted seven fewer 3s per game than in the regular season. By the end of Game 4, Harden was walking the ball up and going one-on-one. The league's go-go pick-and-roll machine had lost its identity. Capela and Nene set 26 ball screens for Harden in Game 1, per tracking data from STATS LLC provided to ESPN.com. That number dropped to 16 in Games 2 and 3, and just 12 on Sunday.

But it hasn't actually worked. Houston has scored 111.7 points per 100 possessions, identical to its regular-season mark, and they've compensated for the decline in 3s with more free throws and shots in the restricted area.

Houston has suffered some embarrassing defensive lapses, mostly in first halves, that can't happen against better teams. Harden has been the culprit on a lot of them. It is time to get serious.

Anderson's minutes will be interesting to watch going forward. Houston's starting five has hemorrhaged points. Smaller lineups, with Trevor Ariza in Anderson's power forward spot, have been dynamite; such groups featuring both Ariza and Patrick Beverley offer the most two-way potential for Houston. Teams don't change starting lineups when they are up 3-1, and the Rockets shouldn't. But they know the data.

Billy Donovan has struck a lot of the right chords since Game 1: more shooting around Russell Westbrook, more Taj Gibson at center, less Enes Kanter, no Semaj Christon. The Thunder lost Game 4, and probably their season, by four points. They were outscored by seven points in 2:19 at the end of the first quarter in which both Westbrook and Victor Oladipo were on the bench. How is this still happening?

We'll see if the series is still happening after tonight.

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