Tag Archives: Gregg Popovich

In Thibs We Trust

Did you hear something? What was that noise? Maybe it was just the wind … Nope, there it is again. What on earth is that? Oh, right, those are the rumblings of Tom Thibodeau chopping block rumors. It’s getting pretty loud. I keep trying to ignore it, but it’s impossible now.

I guessssss I’ll address it.

I can’t speak to the legitimacy of the rumors, but there’s no denying that the Front Office and Thibodeau don’t always see eye to eye; however, is that reason enough to think that they’ll actually fire Thibs? That this is likely his last season with the Chicago Bulls?

Maybe. But if they do, I think that’s insane. Absolutely, positively, bat-shit insane.

Here’s why:

Winning Ways

If a head coach is supposed to produce wins, Tom Thibodeau has done just that. He has a career record of 239-127 (.653) as of February 18th, 2015, and was 112-36 (.757) in the two seasons before Derrick Rose’s injuries, including two number one seeds. To put this in perspective, the only other active coach with a better win percentage over his career is … you guessed it, Gregg Popovich (.684). Tom Thibodeau is 7th all-time in coaching record among those with more than two full seasons of experience (this excludes, for example, active coaches Steve Kerr, who walked into a great situation in Golden State, and Dave Joerger, who hasn’t coached two full seasons yet with Memphis).

This season is nothing to scoff at, either, at 34-20 (.630), and DRosesAndThorns has written at length about why the Bulls are likely to only go up from here.

He and his staff have also taken nameless or left for dead point guards like C.J Watson, John Lucas III, Nate Robinson, DJ Augustin and now Aaron Brooks and transformed them into productive, effective, and valuable back-ups and sometime starters.

Let’s also not forget that Thibs was an Assistant Coach for the 2008 NBA Champion Boston Celtics, under Doc Rivers, and is widely credited for creating the defensive scheme to contain Kobe Bryant in the Finals. A scheme that has taken the NBA by storm in the years since.

tom-thibodeau

Minutes Management

It is generally popular to criticize the coach and the leadership first, whenever a team seems to be underperforming; after all, the coach’s job is to get the most out of his players. It is especially popular to criticize Tom Thibodeau specifically in his minutes management, especially when a team like the Spurs has demonstrated success while resting players. But Thibs is an old school thinker – there may not be a right and wrong (see: Fun Minutes Facts), in this discussion, but maybe a case-by-case.

As it relates to the Spurs, they have the luxury of having been together for years, and developing a winning chemistry. The Bulls are still working on this. Also, the Spurs are consistently a top seed, so they aren’t exactly tanking the regular season to ensure they’re rested come post-season – it’s a byproduct of winning regular season games. As mentioned in the Fun Minutes Facts (really, check that out, if you haven’t), Tim Duncan and Tony Parker sitting is a recent development due to their aging, not because they think every good player should be sitting. Players should play – especially the young ones. That’s how you get better, that’s how you prepare for the playoffs where the intensity is higher, and that’s how you win.

Could Tom be a little more lenient on minutes played at the end of a game in order to reduce the risk for “meaningless” injuries during garbage time? Probably. But a win isn’t a sure thing unless a team is up about 20 points with less than two minutes left. Leaving in a few starters for an extra 90 seconds at the end of a game to ensure victory means more by the end of the season in obtaining a high seed than having 90 extra seconds of rest. Having a high seed matters: In the last 25 years, the teams to win the NBA title have had the following seeds, with number of titles in parenthesis: 1 (14), 2 (6), 3 (4), 4 (0), 5 (0), 6 (1), 7 (0), 8 (0). I gather that it’s important to have a top 3 seed. With the Hawks playing the way they are, and competition with the Cavs, Raptors, and Wizards, there are five teams vying for three good spots, contrary to preseason expectations, which would have you believe this was a two horse race. Maybe these other teams got offended. They’re playing pretty good ball, making it that much tougher for the Bulls to land a top seed, and all the more reason why each regular season victory is meaningful.

Thibodeau’s practices are often not scrimmages, either. From Sam Smith:

 “a mischaracterization about Thibs is the overworking of players. Yes, he plays them a lot in games, though not as much this season, but rarely, if ever, scrimmages in practice. He believes in resting that way…. So I think the Bulls practices… sound mostly boring. There are drills like scrimmages, but a lot of walking through your plays and the opponent plays.”

He’s not running players into the ground for 40+ minutes then forcing them into a grueling 5 on 5 the next day. If he was, we would hear more about it. The players would probably be making more noise.

If the FO really had major, relationship-beyond-repair type issues with Tom Thibodeau on this, one would think they would make player minutes mandates and force him into canceling practices, having more rest days, etc. But that isn’t happening in any significant quantities, other than injury-recovery minutes limitations.

rose thibs

Addressing Rumors

Do the rumors hold water?

“The perception around the league is that Tom is losing his locker room…. Rose made some of his strongest comments to date, saying ‘We’re just not on the same page,'” – Chris Sheridan.

“Bulls did have Sunday off. But players talked about first 2-day break since Dec. 21 as chance to recover. Instead, Thibodeau calls practice.” – K.C. Johnson

Both of these statements suggest that there’s some tension between the players and Tom Thibodeau. But Rose was referring to the players in the locker room not being on the same page, not Thibs. Not once have the players attacked Tom. In fact, they frequently come to his defense. Here’s an example, post-firestorm. That article also makes mention of Van Gundy’s unfortunate comments, where he attacked the Front Office. I think we all wish he would’ve stayed quieter on that one.

Oh, and there’s also this, from Sheridan… 

“But then I went checking around, speaking with another source who is plugged into all things regarding he Bulls, and was told that nothing [Thibs losing the locker room] could be further from the truth. Didn’t Thibs guide the Bulls to winning records and playoff appearances the past two seasons despite being without Derrick Rose? Didn’t they just win 10 of 11? Does that count for nothing?”

This is the same guy that was cause for much of this stir from the start, and once he investigated a little closer, he was turned away.

Water not held.

So why doesn’t the Front Office come out and make a statement, and quiet the noise? Well, historically, they haven’t exactly been forthcoming with information. They’ve shrouded things in mystery, so why would this be any different? And besides, sometimes management organizations like to keep employees on their toes just a little in order to get the best out of them. It’s not a management style I would agree with, but that could be part of it. Or maybe the rumors are just so ridiculous that they don’t want to even address them because they know they’ll go away soon.

Members of the media are paid for stories and headlines that get reads and hits and attract attention, so undoubtedly, if you find a mole hill, wouldn’t you make it into a mountain? I would. So take all of this with a gigantic grain of salt. Or several grains of salt. Or several gigantic grains of salt.

Bottom Line

Forget the notion of “trading” Tom Thibodeau (pre-Doc, this was basically unheard of), or firing him. In my opinion, Thibs is here to stay for the remainder of his contract, despite all the articles claiming that the relationship between Tom and the Front Office are “Beyond Repair.” Ignore the noise – it’s distracting to the goal. Tom is the right guy for the job, and the players respect him. None of them have made any direct comments that Thibs is the problem, nor that he’s losing his guys – all the rumors are just speculation.

Is it possible all of this is out the window if the Bulls lose in the first round? Definitely – since front offices are under a lot of pressure to make sweeping change to Win Now. But: If the Bulls make a playoff run that lands them in the Eastern Conference Finals or further, and the FO really does let him go, it will be one of the biggest mistakes in franchise history.

In Thibs We Trust.

Why female NBA fans–and everyone else–should be excited about Becky Hammon

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 10.03.35 PMWhen I woke up yesterday morning and saw the news that the San Antonio Spurs hired Becky Hammon, a woman, as their assistant head coach, I immediately called my Dad to let him know of the great news. As a female former high school basketball player and someone who knows enough about the sport to hold my own, I felt empowered to be reading about such an exciting step forward in the NBA. In a sport so heavily dominated by male staff, management, ownership, and where the NBA is undoubtedly more popular than the WNBA, it is pretty exciting to finally have a female play such an important role for the defending national champions. I am very excited to follow the Spurs this year and see how well their new assistant coach does. As someone who used to play sports, I can’t help but think about the amazing impact this history will have on all younger female athletes around the nation.

Another element of this story, however, is how much emphasis people put on the fact that she is a female. Yes, the reason this is “history in the making” is because she will be the first full-time female assistant coach the NBA has ever seen. However, she was not hired just because she is a female. She was hired because she is just as qualified as any other person who could have had the position. Head coach Greg Popovich, owner Peter Holt, and the rest of the San Antonio Spurs organization would not have hired Becky Hammon if she was not qualified, so it is very important that she be recognized for her qualifications and not just her gender.

Overall the Spurs did a pretty incredible thing by helping make history today and hiring a qualified and exciting person to fill the spot of the San Antonio Spurs assistant head coach. This is an exciting move for the defending champions and I look forward to seeing how they do this season.

Quick Finals Thought: LeBron’s Defense the Key to Game Two

photo courtesy examiner.com
photo courtesy examiner.com

The Spurs offense was performing in standard peak form for much of the first half. That beautiful motion, typically set up by a Parker drive and dish, had the Heat’s normally active and aggressive defense searching for answers. The Spurs, more than any other team in the league, understand the value of ball movement. They know that when the ball zips around the perimeter at warp speed it creates confusion in the defense and creates openings all over the floor. Isolation is nowhere to be found in Greg Popovich’s vocabulary and it is with good reason: the San Antonio Spurs do not have the talent to play schoolyard basketball.

Lebron James had an incredible game: 35 points on 14-22 shooting, a perfect 3-3 from deep and 10 rebounds. He was +11 in his 38 minutes on the court and at times it seemed like he simply could not miss. Looking at Lebron’s by quarter shot chart makes you shake your head. After not even attempting a jump shot in the first half, Lebron started taking advantage of whatever space he got around the perimeter in quarter three, going 6-7 from the field with two from deep. Lebron’s offensive dominance not only kept Miami in the game in the game during the first three quarters, it finally opened up easy looks for his teammates down the stretch as the Spurs were forced to send more help than they wanted. But the real value of Lebron is nothing that shows up in a box score. While his eye popping shooting numbers are certainly impressive, it is doing a disservice to the King to stop your analysis there.

Miami has evened this series not because of some miraculous offensive sequence that put the Spurs out of reach, like the Spurs did to them in the first game of the Finals. Instead, it was the defense of the Heat that fueled the victory. More specifically, it was a defensive adjustment that Lebron and the Heat made that flummoxed a team many consider unflummoxable.

When Lebron James guards Tony Parker, the Spurs offense is forced to completely rejigger its beautiful system. The catalyst to every pretty San Antonio bucket is a Parker drive into the teeth of the opposing defense. Parker’s deceptive speed and arsenal of creative moves at the rim cause defenses to abandon shooters around the perimeter in order to clog up the paint. Parker, always excellent at recognizing that help has arrived, licks his chops in these situations as he knows that his teammates will fill the corners and find openings around the three point line. His initial drive and dish may not always lead directly to a basket, but it forces the defense into difficult rotations that lead to more drives, more dishes, and lots of great shots from the best spots on the floor.

Down the stretch in Game 2, Lebron single handedly put a stop to the Spurs’ primary weapon. Lebron simply did not allow Parker to beat him off the dribble, happily going under screens and acting as a human wall between Parker and the basket. The biggest difference between the first and second games is obviously that Lebron was able to play the end of the fourth quarter of Sunday night’s contest. But what’s not so obvious is that Lebron’s cramps not only created a void for the Heat offensively, but that Lebron was not able to personally cramp San Antonio’s style.

With Parker essentially erased from the game, the Spurs finished the game looking very un-Spurs like. San Antonio only managed 18 points in the final period as guys were forced to take shots they were uncomfortable with and put in situations they were unqualified to handle. A younger Manu Ginobili would have made Lebron pay for this adjustment, but a younger Manu Ginobili he is not.

This late game adjustment is nothing new for Lebron and the Heat. Lebron’s defense against Derrick Rose in the Eastern Conference Finals back in 2011 still gives me nightmares as it seems both unfathomable and unfair that a man of that size should also be that quick and agile.  It is impressive to watch James raise his level of play to whatever the situation demands. A truly positionless superstar, Lebron is able to affect the game in ways the NBA has never seen before. We saw against the Nets when he asserted himself on the low block and completely destroyed Paul Pierce. Tonight, it was with defense that Lebron helped Miami even the series and capture homecourt advantage.

BULLet Points: Rational Criticisms Through Two Games

image via thechicagohomer.com
image via thechicagohomer.com

Game two fucking sucked. I spent a good chunk of overtime crouched on the ground with my hands intertwined behind my head. It just seemed like the right thing to do as I could frog leap up if something good happened and fall down from a somewhat safe distance from the ground in the event something bad happened. If you were to ask me about the game within  four or five hours of its completion, I would have mumbled something unintelligible while wildly waving my hands in the air. But time heals all (even Derrick Rose) and I have calmly put some thoughts on paper about the Bulls, currently down 2-0 to the Wizards and heading to Washington for the next two games.

  • Tom Thibodeau is without a doubt one of the best coaches in the league. His defensive scheme has become the most imitated system in the NBA. His ability to turn broken down and discarded players into key cogs in the rotation is a remarkable and invaluable commodity to the penny-pinching Bulls.
  • In a season where the best player missed 72 games and the second best player was shipped off midway through the season, Tom Thibodeau managed to make a team that scored the fewest points per game in the league fun to watch on a nightly basis. Ask Cavs fans if they had fun watching regular season basketball. Or Knicks fans, or Pistons fans. With superior talent and inferior coaching, those three franchises turned into unwatchable (unless you’re a car wreck fan) dumpster fires that sucked the life out of fans. A Thibodeau coached team will never know that pain.
  • Tom Thibodeau has some major flaws. Wrapping up his fourth year as the conductor of this high speed train, Thibodeau has failed to grasp certain concepts that separate the very good coaches of the NBA from the excellent ones. Greg Popovich, recent recipient of the Coach of the Year award, has found ways to stay ahead of the league in terms of strategy. Pop was one of the first to grasp the value of corner threes. Thibs, to his credit, also understood that a shot worth more points from a shorter distance is super important and built his defense around shutting down those attempts. But where Popovich is miles ahead of Thibodeau is understanding rotations.
  • The Spurs have nine players who average between 19 and 29 minutes a game. Tim Duncan led the team in total minutes at 2,158 minutes. Marco Belinelli is the only other Spur to crack the 2,000 minute mark at 2,016. Tiago Splitter, who dealt with health issues, had the 9th highest minute total on the team at 1,271.
  • The Bulls had six guys crack 2,000 minutes for the regular season. Joakim Noah, who somehow managed to stay on the court for 80 games, led the team with 2,820 minutes. Hinrich, the sixth most used Bull, logged 2,116 minutes. DJ Augestin, picked up midway through the season, still managed to log 1,800 minutes. The 9th most used Bull this year was Luol Deng, who hasn’t been on the team since early January.
  • I understand it’s unfair to measure Thibodeau against maybe the greatest coach of all time, but it needs to be pointed out that Thibs is SEVERELY lacking when it comes to pacing his players and understanding when its ok to take your foot off the gas. Tony Snell is never going to make an all-star team, and he may never even develop into an average NBA player (his PER of 8 is, ugh, low). But the marginal cost of playing him a couple more minutes a night against the marginal benefits of keeping Jimmy Butler fresh (and by fresh I of course mean “not on the verge of death by exhaustion”) likely outway those costs.
image via kcsportsninja.com
image via kcsportsninja.com
  • The Bulls, for two consecutive games, have turned into a middle school basketball team offensively in the fourth quarter. In game two, Chicago shot 7-25 in the fourth quarter and overtime. A lot of those shots came as the shot clock was winding down and resulted in Kirk Hinrich taking wild jumpers and DJ Augustin trying to get bailed out on out of control drives to the basket.
  • Whether it’s a result of a change in play calling or a ramping up of defensive pressure, the Bulls completely abandoned Noah in the high post. The flex sets where Joakim catches near the free throw line while the other four Bulls on the court screen and cut around him have been a staple of offensive success for this limited team.
  • High screen and rolls with Hinrich as the ball handler are not going to cut it in crunch time. No one is afraid of Kirk’s shot or his speed and the man guarding Hinrich happily goes under the pick, clogging things in the paint and forcing the Bulls to settle for bad shots.
  • I don’t care how ramped up the pressure is on Noah off the ball. The Bulls need him to facilitate the offense to prevent it from completely dying down the stretch.
  • The Wizards are more talented than the Bulls. Wall and Beal are better than any (healthy) Bulls guards. Nene and Gortat present the rarely seen dual threat front court that can stand toe-to-toe with the fearsome Noah-Gibson pairing. Their athleticism allows them to make up for small defensive breakdowns, closing on just about every shot and challenging everything at the rim.
  • I expect the Bulls to take one of the next two games, but I don’t expect much beyond that. Dropping both games in Chicago has put the Bulls in a difficult hole to crawl out of.

Round One Preview, Part 1: Western Conference

pop

The NBA regular season held our attention for the full 82 games this season, as nearly every playoff matchup came down to games that were played on the final day of the regular season.

Before I go on, I would like to bid adieu to the 14 teams that did not qualify for the playoffs. League Pass addicts across America shed a tear when the Phoenix was eliminated from the postseason. This year marks the first time in NBA history that the the Knicks, Celtics and Lakers will all miss the postseason. The poor Timberwolves will go down as the team with the best point differential to ever miss the playoffs.

And with that, let us not speak of any of those teams again for a very long time. There are much more exciting matters at hand.

The first round of the playoffs promise to be excellent in the West and potentially interesting in the East, which is about the best thing a person could ask for. The West is loaded top to bottom and is where this preview begins.

(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Dallas Mavericks

The Spurs have been locked into the top slot the last couple of days and have been resting guys accordingly. Dallas, on the other hand, has been going full throttle down the stretch to edge out Phoenix for the final spot in the postseason. After losing to Memphis on Wednesday night, the Mavericks find themselves in the worst case playoff scenario. Had they held off Memphis Wednesday and held onto the seven seed, Dallas could have potentially hung tight with OKC in round one. That matchup, like all of Dallas’ potential matchups, would have featured a talent imbalance not in Dallas’ favor. But with the Thunder as an opponent, at least the Mavericks could boast a sizable coaching advantage. Instead, coach Carlisle has to gameplan against Greg Popovich who is known for being a gameplanner himself.

The Spurs should easily dispose of Dallas, a team that can score with the best of them but has been very porous on the defensive end. Dallas gives up 105.9 points per 100 possessions, good for 22nd in the league. That’s not going to hold up against the Spurs’ 6th ranked offense in terms of efficiency. San Antonio’s drive and kick system is specifically designed to systematically pick apart a team like Dallas that plays matadors at both guard spots in Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon.

Dirk and company are too skilled an too prideful to just roll over in this series, but don’t have nearly enough fire power to keep up with San Antonio. I expect at least one crazy Nowitzki game winner, but do not expect more than one Dallas victory.

Prediction: San Antonio in 5

thunder

(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies

A rematch of a round two matchup from a year ago, this version of Thunder-Grizz promises to be a lot different with a healthy Russell Westbrook running point for the Thunder. The Grizzlies won 50 games this year despite enduring a six week stretch without reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. New coach Dave Joerger took some time to learn how to best use his roster, but has certainly become more comfortable at the reigns. Gasol’s return from a knee injury returned the Grizzlies’ defense to elite levels. Since January 15, the day Gasol rejoined the lineup, only the Bulls have played stingier defense per 100 possessions.

Oklahoma City enters the playoffs with high aspirations. After making the Finals in 2012, the Thunder lost their All-Star point guard to injury in the first round last year. Westbrook, who has re-injured his knee this season, seems to be fully healthy now. Since the calendar turned to March, Westbrook has averaged 23.4/7.2/5.8 a night on a pretty strict minutes limit. That limit will no longer be in place now that the games actually matter and Westbrook is ready to unleash himself on the Grizzlies.

Memphis, as defensively gifted as they are, will not be able to stop Kevin Durant. They probably won’t even be able to contain him. Durant has never been better than he is right now, on the verge of taking home his first MVP trophy. The Grizzlies extended Tony Allen specifically for this type of matchup, but Allen, at just 6’4″, will struggle to bother Durant’s shot. That’s no slight to Tony, as the entirety of the NBA has been unable to do much against Durant this season. KD has been averaging a cool 32 points a night on 50% shooting from the field, 39% from three. Durant has also broadened his game this year, more willing to put the ball on the floor now than in years past. According to SportVU data, Durant is driving the ball nearly six times a game this season, just one fewer than Lebron. On those 5.8 drives per game, Durant is scoring 6.2 points per game, the fourth highest mark in the NBA.

My final note on this series, which will be won decisively by the Thunder, is that Memphis allows the Thunder to play big, something that Scott Brooks loves to do for no reason. Facing a starting lineup of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, the Thunder have an excuse to give Kendrick Perkins run and not have it totally kill them.

Prediction: Thunder in 4

clippers warriors fight

(3) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) Golden State Warriors

News of Andrew Bogut’s cracked ribs makes the likelihood of this series being an interesting one very small. The Warriors have the third best defensive rating in the NBA this year despite starting sieves at point guard and power forward. Golden State’s defensive success can be largely attributed to two men: Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut, the latter of which will likely not be healthy in time for round one. Bogut has truly anchored the Warriors defense this season, acting as a final line of defense in the (frequent) event that Steph Curry lets his man by him.

The Clippers have seemingly gone under the radar down the stretch, being pushed aside in the media by the streaking Spurs and the floundering Pacers. But to the careful observer, LA’s Other Team is just as likely as OKC or San Antonio to make it out of the West. Blake Griffin has taken huge strides this season as a defender, post scorer and ball handler. Chris Paul’s shoulder injury ended up being a blessing in disguise as the Flyin’ Lion seemed to really come into his own in Paul’s absence.

It won’t be a cakewalk for the Clips, as Steph Curry and company promise to keep games exciting with their ability to make quick comebacks. No lead is safe against Golden State who is both fourth in three point attempts and percentage. With Bogut and David Lee both nursing injuries, I fully expect Curry to let it fly in the playoffs. Steph already averages 7.9 trey attempts a game, of which he makes 42%, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that number climb to nine or ten against the Clippers.

The Clippers’ last two postseasons have ended in part because of a lack of offensive creativity. In the playoffs, when teams really have the time to study every little thing a team does, it is more important than ever to have a sophisticated system. With Vinny Del Negro at the helm, offensive sophistication was never a strong suit of the Clippers. But this season, under Doc Rivers, I expect the Clippers to fight off the offensive stalling that has been characteristic of their recent playoff runs. The Warriors will shoot their way to a couple of close wins, but there’s no way Chris Paul doesn’t get his team to the second round.

Prediction: Clippers in 6

LMA

(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Portland Trail Blazers

The 4v5 matchup out West might be the most purely entertaining series of the entire first round. In Portland and Houston, we find ourselves with two teams that love to score and don’t care much about slowing anyone down. Houston and Portland finish the season ranked 12th and 16th in defensive rating, respectively, making them far and away the poorest overall defensive matchup in round one. The two teams also rank fourth and fifth in offense, with the Rockets scoring 108.6 points/100 possessions and the Blazers scoring 108.3.

The Rockets defensive efficiency with Dwight Howard on the floor is a slightly more acceptable 102.2. That number hangs right at 102.1 when Omer Asik takes the floor. So why the poor overall numbers from the Rockets? Dwight has sat out eleven games this year and Mutant Judge Reinhold has sat out 34 contests due to various injury issues both physical and emotional. With neither rim protector in the game, Houston’s horrendous perimeter defenders routinely get torched. James Harden in particular has shown little to no interest in playing defense this season. But with Asik back in the fold and Dwight well rested and recovered from his recent injury, I expect Houston to show a level of stinginess they were rarely able to achieve during the regular season.

If not for Phoenix, Portland surely would have been the Little Engine That could team, a squad that some pundits picked to get the 7 or 8 seed, but not good enough to make any serious noise. But after getting out to a scorching start, the Blazers spent the majority of the season in the top four in the Western Conference. Portland’s explosive offense has come back to earth a little bit in the second half of the season, especially its clutch performance numbers. But Portland’s success is certainly no fluke, as Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge both submitted All-Star offensive seasons.

They say the long two is dead in the NBA but don’t tell that to Aldridge, the player who by far and away led the league in that type of shot. And while it would be nice for the former Longhorn to learn to shoot from just a few feet back, it is hard to complain with the results he puts up. LMA is currently shooting 48% from between 16-24 feet, in addition to the 57% he shoots at the basket. Aldridge is a tricky matchup for Houston, a team that lacks any sort of traditional power forward who has the size to make life difficult for Aldridge on the block and the speed to chase him around the perimeter. Dwight Howard, for all the rim protection he provides, is no longer the type of player who can completely dominate the entire floor defensively. 2009 Dwight could have made life miserable for Aldridge on the wings. 2014 Dwight will probably live with the inefficient shots.

The question mark for Portland offensively comes from the point guard position, where Damian Lillard will be matched up against the cagey and relentless Patrick Beverly. Beverly famously injured Russell Westbrook in last years playoffs when he lunged for a steal as Westbrook attempted to call timeout. Beverly has developed quite the reputation, and the swagger to go with it, since moving into the starting lineup this year. Tasked with tracking the oppositions’ number one perimeter option, Beverly has dedicated all of his energy to the process, knowing full well that his starting back court mate James Harden can pick up the slack on offense.  Beverly, who has recently dealt with knee issues of his own lately, will be key in slowing down Lillard and the Portland attack.

Prediction: Houston in 7 (but really we’re all winners because these games will be in the 120s).