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In yesterday’s edition of The Whiteboard, I mentioned how defensive matchups were fascinating variables to watch in Tuesday night’s games and it absolutely worked out. The 76ers made a big change in how they handled Trae Young and ran away with a 16-point win to even the series.
In Game 1 between the Clippers and Jazz, L.A. opted not to really use Kawhi Leonard or Paul George on Donovan Mitchell and watched him go off for 45. They were able to keep it close enough that Utah needed a game-saving block from Rudy Gobert to seal the win on the final possessions but it was the fourth time this postseason they’ve given up 40+ to an opposing perimeter scorer.
Trae Young has never seen a defender like Ben Simmons
The 76ers changed matchups and used Simmons as Young’s primary defender on about 40 percent of his offensive possessions in Game 2. The result was a huge disruption to Young’s rhythm. Simmons’ length was a problem for Young all night, allowing him to disrupt pull-up shots when he was trailing the action or outright discourage them when he was keeping Young in front of him. Young was 2-of-8 on pull-up jumpers in Game 2 (a 31.3 effective field goal percentage) after posting an effective field goal percentage of 49.4 percent on an average of 13.8 pull-up attempts per game through the playoffs to that point.
Listed at just 6-foot-1, Young is used to working against larger defenders — of the 12 players who were his primary defender for at least 35 possessions during the regular season, just two were also listed at 6-foot-1 or shorter. Against this group of defenders, Young was usually working at a height disadvantage of about two inches.
But Simmons has a nine-inch height advantage on Young, and his 7-foot wingspan just exacerbates it. The NBA’s player tracking stats would classify a shot taken with four feet of space between the bodies of the shooter and defender as being open, but Simmons’ height advantage and wingspan could basically swallow all of that. Obviously, this only works because Simmons is quick enough to largely stay with Young on the perimeter but having a backline defender like Embiid makes things easier. Simmons can play more aggressively knowing that his length can help take away the pull-up even if he’s behind Young and that Embiid is waiting to shut things down in the paint. And of course, Matisse Thybulle — 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan — makes for a pretty good plan B when Simmons needs a break.
The Hawks are not without counters. Young’s ability to draw fouls is a lurking threat to warp the 76ers’ rotation and Atlanta has a number of other ball-handlers and creators who can complement Young and take off some of the pressure. But it’s all going to require more adaptation than the Hawks have needed at really any point yet this season.
What are the Clippers doing with Donovan Mitchell?
When George and Leonard joined forces with the Clippers it looked like a uniquely destructive perimeter combination on defense. They were two of the league’s best perimeter defenders and, with Patrick Beverley, gave L.A. a stopper to throw at almost any type of opposing scorer. But the Clippers haven’t ever really leaned into that vision, particularly in these playoffs.
According to the NBA’s defensive matchup statistics, Luke Kennard and Rajon Rondo were the two Clippers who spent the most time matched up with Mitchell in Game 1. George or Leonard was Mitchell’s primary defender on just 20 percent of his offensive possessions. In the previous series, Marcus Morris was Doncic’s primary defender on twice as many possessions as any other Clipper and George or Leonard had the primary assignment on just 23 percent of Doncic’s offensive possessions.
There’s certainly an argument to be made that putting your best defender on the other team’s best perimeter scorer isn’t always best practice. Exerting more energy on defense can take a toll on the offense of a player like George or Leonard. But sometimes there’s also more net value to be gained by shutting down a secondary creator and scorer.
The Roy Hibbert Pacers had one of the most efficient defenses in NBA history and went toe-to-toe with the LeBron James Heat in three consecutive postseasons. In those series, the Pacers would often use George, their best perimeter defender, on Dwyane Wade, letting Lance Stephenson handle LeBron. The thinking was that George swarming Wade would be more detrimental to the overall offensive rhythm of the Heat than having him make things a little bit harder for LeBron.
However, that’s not really the case in either matchup for the Clippers so far. The Mavericks had no other offensive creators to speak of besides Doncic. Utah is the opposite scenario, with so much creation depth that having George or Leonard try and completely shut down Jordan Clarkson or Joe Ingles doesn’t have as big of an effect. Offensive responsibility could just be shifted to Bojan Bogdanovic or Mike Conley (when he returns to the lineup). Leonard and George have perhaps been slightly more disruptive off the ball than they were in the regular season, in terms of generating steals and blocks, but is it worth it?
The appeal of having two elite perimeter defenders is being able to save one for when you really need them. It seems like the Clippers are trying to save both of them?
Big men are back (in the MVP conversation)
Nikola Jokic taking MVP shouldn’t really have been a surprise and one of the most central (see what I did there?) narratives around his win will be his position. Jokic is the first center to win MVP since Tim Duncan in 2002-03 and the first big man to win since Dirk Nowitzki in 2006-07. (Although it admittedly requires some mental gymnastics to consider Giannis as something other than a big man).
What’s even more notable though is that Joel Embiid finished second in the MVP voting. This is the first time since 2003-04 (Garnett and Duncan) when bigs finished No. 1 and No. 2 in MVP voting and the first time since 1994-95 (Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson) that two centers finished No. 1 and No. 2. And to underscore how much the game has changed, take a look at the full voting results for that season — the top six vote-getters are all centers or power forwards.
If you have any axes to grind with the officiating in this postseason, you’re definitely going to want to check out this statistical analysis of individual referees, including their propensity for making different kinds of calls relative to their peers.
Donovan Mitchell’s playoff legend just continues to grow.
More on Chris Paul and what looks like his most promising chance at getting the postseason monkey off his back.