What happened? Playoffs pack surprise

Five writers tackle five questions on why some front-runners struggle this postseason

Originally Published: April 26, 2011
ESPN.com

RoseMichael Hickey/US PresswireRaise your hands if you thought the 62-win Bulls would struggle this much against the 37-win Pacers.

The 2011 NBA playoffs aren't following the script very closely.

No. 1 seeds aren't supposed to stumble against No. 8 seeds; No. 2 seeds/defending champs aren't supposed to get shown up by No. 7 seeds; and MVPs aren't supposed to shoot 35.2 percent in the postseason against teams that finished with 37 wins.

So what happened? That's what we asked five writers:

1. Chicago wasn't supposed to struggle against Indy. So what happened?

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: The defense has been characteristically stingy (97.2 points per 100 possessions), but the Ghost of Del Negro past is haunting the offense. The Chicago Bulls haven't established a presence down low, and with the exception of some timely shooting from Kyle Korver, they've generated very little outside of some rudimentary stuff run for, by and around Derrick Rose.

Tim Donahue, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: According to Synergy Sports, the Bulls have averaged only 0.36 points per possession from the pick-and-roll ball handler over the past three games. The Bulls' defense has been good enough to sweep, but coach Tom Thibodeau has made no effective counter to Frank Vogel's defensive adjustments. As a result, the Bulls haven't been able to put up enough points to create separation.

Nate Drexler, Magic Basketball: The Indiana Pacers have provided a blueprint for how to beat the Bulls: Make somebody besides Derrick Rose score. Indiana is bringing the desperation defense and forcing the league MVP to choose between a jump shot, a low-percentage shot and letting a teammate shoot. Those teammates aren't playing well enough to blow anybody out right now.

Joe Gerrity, Hornets 247: The Pacers realized early on that, on paper, they aren't in the same class as the Bulls, and decided to simply dictate the games based on physicality. It has worked, and Chicago's responded by missing everything in sight. As long as they can hit their open shots going forward, this will be a mere hiccup.

Noam Schiller, Hardwood Paroxysm: Tom Thibodeau stopped playing what was perhaps the best bench unit in the league; Carlos Boozer has played so badly that even Utah Jazz fans are starting to feel uncomfortable; and nobody has emerged as a secondary scoring option, with the closest thing being spot-up shooter Kyle Korver.


2. Orlando wasn't supposed to be down 3-1 to ATL. So what happened?

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Icebergs melted, tectonic plates shifted and Orlando -- one of the most beautifully efficient offensive systems in the league -- forgot how to score. What's heartbreaking about the Orlando Magic's disintegration? Just as Dwight Howard arrives into his own, his current supporting cast is incapable of making basketball plays. Also … Jamal Crawford happened, too, for which there's no explanation.

Tim Donahue, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: I didn't know what to expect from this series. Both teams seem on a downward trajectory overall, and it's hard to have a lot of faith in either. A big Game 1 win for the Hawks tips the balance, and no consistent help for Dwight Howard will probably nudge the Hawks ahead and the Magic into a fretful summer.

Nate Drexler, Magic Basketball: Live by the 3, die by the 3. Orlando came into the playoffs with ice-cold shooters, and a Dwight Howard-centered offense relies just as much on the perimeter assault as it does on Dwight "getting his." But a 2-for-23 effort on 3s in Game 4 seemed to have spelled the demise of the Dwight era in Orlando.

Joe Gerrity, Hornets 247: Orlando is leading all playoff teams in 3-pointers attempted, but shooting the lowest percentage (21.9). If they were hitting at their season average clip (36.6 percent), the result would be more than 10 more points per contest. Three-point shooting squads that come out ice-cold from deep tend to have short postseasons.

Noam Schiller, Hardwood Paroxysm: According to NBA StatsCube, in 72 minutes with Jason Collins on the court, the Magic have scored 76.5 points per 100 possessions. The Milwaukee Bucks ranked last in the NBA this year at 99.0. With non-Dwight Magic players shooting just around 33 percent for the series, not even Superman himself can outscore a scorching Jamal Crawford (24 ppg) and friends.


3. L.A. was supposed to steamroll New Orleans. So what happened?

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Chris Paul has identified some serious vulnerabilities in the Los Angeles Lakers' defense, particularly when Andrew Bynum isn't on the floor. Paul's dribble-penetration is chewing up both the Lakers' perimeter defenders and their backpedaling big men. But if the Lakers had had even a respectable jump-shooting night in Game 4, we're talking about a close-out game on Wednesday.

Tim Donahue, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: When one team is expecting to play four rounds (the Lakers), and the other is just hoping to play more than one (the New Orleans Hornets), it's difficult to tell what effect that has. The Lakers looked vulnerable against Oklahoma City last year, then took it all. Is this a repeat? But hey, it could just be Chris Paul.

Nate Drexler, Magic Basketball: Chris Paul. A lot of people said that his knee injury would forever slow him down, but Paul found a different gear. The knee injury might prevent him from doing it every night, and that's why the Lakers will still win the series, but they're starting to look a lot older than they have in seasons past.

Joe Gerrity, Hornets 247: Aside from the one-man wrecking "krewe" known as Chris Paul, credit really has to go to Aaron Gray and Carl Landry. They have played big enough to keep the Lakers' frontcourt advantage from overwhelming the Hornets, despite Emeka Okafor's struggles. Ariza has been invaluable as well, pressing harder than anyone not named Chris Paul.

Noam Schiller, Hardwood Paroxysm: The Lakers were supposed to destroy New Orleans inside. Andrew Bynum has held his part of the bargain, placing Emeka Okafor in foul trouble almost all series long, but Pau Gasol's nightly disappearing act, Lamar Odom's "will he or won't he?" play, and Aaron Gray's emergence as a competent NBA center have reduced L.A.'s greatest edge.


4. CP3 wasn't supposed to outplay Kobe and Pau. So what happened?

Bryant

Paul

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: This is Paul's series, a showcase of his offensive versatility, defensive tenacity and capacity to perform whatever task needs to be done (including rebounding). Kobe isn't entirely healthy, and it cost the Lakers in Game 4 when they needed him to be more than a facilitator. Pau Gasol was rendered ineffective in Games 1 and 2 on both ends, but has improved.

Tim Donahue, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: I have a standing rule: Never be surprised by outstanding players when they do outstanding things.

Nate Drexler, Magic Basketball: The Lakers tried throwing multiple defenders at him, but this guy is crafty. It shouldn't be surprising that Paul shot the ball well, commanded the floor, and torched everybody else the Lakers tried to match up against him … for a couple of games. If he does it for four games? Then I'll be surprised.

Joe Gerrity, Hornets 247: Paul has the advantage so far over L.A.'s stars simply because his fire burns larger. The sheer determination he showed in getting the ball back after committing a turnover in the second quarter of Game 4 tells you all you need to know about who wants it the most.

Noam Schiller, Hardwood Paroxysm: Strong defensive schemes from Monty Williams to go with individual efforts from Trevor Ariza and Carl Landry have frustrated L.A.'s one-two punch all series long, but the bottom line is that when Chris Paul plays like this -- whether it's good health or just renewed vigor -- he's better than everybody.


5. D-Rose was supposed to confirm his MVP status. So what happened?

Rose

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Nothing, actually. He's raised his regular-season player efficiency rating from 23.62 to 24.64 in this series. If you're looking for an explanation of public perception, the answer is Chris Paul. Derrick Rose is an electrifying scorer and a winner, but there is an intuition to Paul's game as a pure point guard that defies comparison -- and that's not Rose's fault.

Tim Donahue, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: Hasn't he? Granger wasn't wrong when he said, "As Derrick Rose goes, so goes Chicago." Rose carried a sputtering Bulls team to the first three wins. The Bulls' offense went from bad to worse when an ankle injury turned him into a jump shooter. The D is great, but Rose is clearly the difference-maker for Chicago.

Nate Drexler, Magic Basketball: MVP is a regular-season award. We won't see "confirmation" of the MVP trophy until we see who represents the East in the NBA Finals. A 4-for-18 effort in Game 3 is hardly MVP caliber, but really, as long as the Bulls keep going in this tournament, D-Rose is confirming his MVP status.

Joe Gerrity, Hornets 247: At times it appears like he's trying to prove himself so much it actually hurts the team. Why else jack seven 3-pointers a game and take so many shots on a bum ankle? That coinciding with Paul's resurgence has really forced the realization that although Rose is great, he's not even the best point guard.

Noam Schiller, Hardwood Paroxysm: Paul George and Dahntay Jones give the Indiana Pacers an unlikely couple of athletic wings who are long enough to bother Rose's shots and still quick enough to at least slow him down on his way to the rim. Rose has helped them by settling, taking a startling seven 3s a game without the success rate to back it up (17.2 percent).


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