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April 19, 2009
Playoff Prospectus
Opening Day

by Kevin Pelton

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Chicago 105, Boston 103 (OT - 1-0 Chicago)
Pace: 97.6
Offensive Ratings: Chicago 97.9, Boston 95.0

Derrick Rose was nice enough to invite the entire city of Boston to his coming-out party. The likely Rookie of the Year put together the strongest all-around effort of his debut season--36 points on 25 shooting possessions, 11 assists and (yes) five turnovers in 50 minutes before fouling out--against the guy I picked as the point guard on my All-Defensive First Team. While Rajon Rondo made some mistakes--the most costly an off-the-ball foul committed while trying to deny Rose the ball with a one-point lead and just under ten seconds left in regulation--this was mostly a case of brilliant offense beating good defense. Rose kept making Boston pay for going under pick-and-rolls. Not counting a desperation heave at the first-quarter buzzer, he made five of six shot attempts from outside the paint. When Rose decided to drive, the Celtics had a tough time cutting him off after the screen and missed Kevin Garnett's help defense in the paint.

Even given Rose's huge numbers, the Celtics actually had a strong defensive game. They limited Chicago wings Ben Gordon and John Salmons to combined 12-for-33 shooting, including one three-pointer in 10 attempts. No, this game was lost on offense. Boston did a good job of getting to the free-throw line and hanging on to the basketball, but was failed by shooting and offensive rebounding. The Celtics hit 39.4 percent from the field and 4-of-16 three-pointers.

The big culprit was Ray Allen, a dismal 1-of-12 from the field in a performance reminiscent of his poor first two playoff series last year. Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich defends Allen as well as anyone, but Hinrich played just 23 minutes and spent much of that time defending other Boston players. Allen just couldn't get it going. Paul Pierce needed 24 shooting possessions to get his 23 points. That left Rondo as the Celtics' primary offense. He spent just as much time in the paint as Rose did at the other end, finishing with 29 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, and setting up Boston big men underneath. Without Garnett, the Celtics need at least two of their three go-to players producing. Allen was too much of a drag on the offense in this game.

Cleveland 102, Detroit 84 (1-0 Cleveland)
Pace: 77.4
Offensive Ratings: Cleveland 133.0, Detroit 107.7

Why pace matters, example #3,454,218: LeBron James' performance has to be viewed through the prism of the slow-paced game. While he was on the floor, he used two out of five Cavaliers possessions, and did so with an individual efficiency of 146.2. That's sick. Prorate James' stats to the same pace as Celtics/Bulls and he finishes with 48 points and nine assists. Think that might have opened some more eyes?

No one from James' supporting cast had a big night, with four other players scoring in double figures, but none more than 13 points. However, they were opportunistic with their chances and held on to the basketball--Cleveland coughed it up just five times, and that's impressive no matter how slow the pace. Despite a decent offensive outing, the Pistons had no answers. They're not going to score a lot better against the Cavaliers defense than they did yesterday...and they still lost by 18 points. Ouch.

Dallas 105, San Antonio 97 (1-0 Dallas)
Pace: 79.6
Offensive Ratings: Dallas 132.6, San Antonio 121.3

These may not be the Spurs of old, but San Antonio does not usually allow 105 points in 79 possessions and 53.8 percent shooting. Dallas did everything well on offense, corralling more than 30 percent of their rare misses from the field, taking care of the basketball and shooting the lights out from inside the arc.

Even with Jason Terry having a relatively quiet night, the Mavericks won this one with their bench. Brandon Bass had 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting in just 18 minutes of action. He, Terry and Jose Juan Barea were on the floor when Dallas used a 12-3 run early in the fourth quarter to take the lead for good. The small backcourt proved problematic for a San Antonio team that used 6'5" swingman Roger Mason as its backup point guard, with Jacque Vaughn proving too old and George Hill too young for Gregg Popovich's taste.

The Spurs lost on a night when they made 11 three-pointers and got strong outings from Tim Duncan (27 points, nine rebounds) and Tony Parker (22 and eight assists, although with five turnovers), and they did so at home. One game in, I'm feeling comfortable with picking the Mavericks in this series.

Houston 108, Portland 81 (1-0 Houston)
Pace: 79.4
Offensive Ratings: Houston 138.3, Portland 100.4

PORTLAND - I did not see that coming. Despite the Blazers' 34-7 home record, I'm not surprised they lost at the Rose Garden. My projection of Portland in seven assumed both teams would take a game on the other's home court. It's rare that you see a series that plays to form. What I absolutely did not expect is the Blazers getting dispatched in the same lopsided fashion as the blowouts they had been handing out at home in the past two months. This was Portland's worst loss of the season, and the team's worst offensive performance since mid-December.

Let's talk first about what Houston did right. The Rockets established Yao Ming in the post early in the game, and Yao was literally perfect. He made all nine of his shot attempts, many of them difficult fadeaways, and was a perfect 6-for-6 from the foul line en route to a 24-point effort. The Blazers never chose to double Yao, but frankly many of the shots he was making were those you'll live with. Yao is simply that good when he's hitting from outside. When Yao went out--and he played just 24 minutes because of a combination of foul trouble, typical rest and the scoreboard--Dikembe Mutombo came in to play 18 minutes, or about a fifth of his season total. Mutombo looked spry and active defensively, pulling down nine rebounds. Houston was +10 with Mutombo in the game, and his presence rectified an issue for the Rockets over the course of the season, their lack of length on the second unit.

Now, the issues for the Blazers. Let's stay on the defensive end of the floor, where both Steve Blake and Sergio Rodriguez were torched by Aaron Brooks. In a 27-point, seven-assist effort, Brooks was pretty much everything Houston imagined when dealing Rafer Alston and handing the starting job at point guard to Brooks. This kind of big night by opposing point guards was commonplace for Portland in the first half of the season, but they'd done a much better job since the All-Star break--part of the reason the Blazers have been rising in the Defensive Rating rankings. Portland isn't going to be able to keep Brooks entirely out of the paint--he's simply too quick to do that given the current hand-checking limitations. What the Blazers must do is make him work more for his chances and limit them as much as possible.

On offense, Portland pretty much played entirely into the Rockets' hands. Obviously, credit goes to a Houston defense that is well-coached, has a pair of stoppers, and has size in the paint. Given that, Nate McMillan's game plan was to move the basketball and get Houston rotating. That's exactly the opposite of what happened. Even when the Blazers did score, it was off of one-on-one situations involving either Brandon Roy or Travis Outlaw. Roy's two assists tell the story--he wasn't able to set up his teammates as he usually does against aggressive defenses, and he shot 10-of-23 from the field while getting to the free-throw line just once. Other players were bigger culprits. Whenever Portland posted up in the mid-block, the Rockets would walk a player up to double from the endline, and the Blazers never took advantage of it. Twelve assists on 35 field goals isn't going to cut it for Portland.

The Blazers had also hoped to avoid playing against a set Houston defense by pushing the basketball. Alas, that requires stops, and because Portland was taking the ball out of the net so frequently--and because the Rockets are excellent in transition defense--those early-offense opportunities never materialized.

Let's also give credit to Luis Scola, who quietly had a strong all-around night. Scola made seven of his nine shot attempts in scoring 19 points, grabbed eight rebounds and fought LaMarcus Aldridge all night long. Aldridge finished with seven points on 12 shot attempts, a dramatic turn from his excellent second half of the season.

The bright spot for the Blazers was the performance of center Greg Oden in his playoff debut. Oden was aggressive with his opportunities in the paint and knocked down six of his seven shots, scoring 15 points. He was also able to largely stay out of the foul trouble that has plagued him. McMillan may want to look to Oden more quickly in Game Two if Yao gets off to quick start.

No one has been banging the drum more strongly than I have that Portland's youth and inexperience would not hurt them in the playoffs. Alas, tonight the Blazers came out looking like a team that was getting its first taste of the postseason--and wasn't quite sure what to expect. Blazers.com's Casey Holdahl pointed out at halftime the similarity to Portland's opening game of the regular season--a 20-point loss to the Lakers in L.A. that fell well short of high preseason expectations. The Blazers rebounded after that game to beat San Antonio at home two nights later. Portland will need a similar turnaround here.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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