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Five Things to Watch in Playoffs Wednesday: Kevin Love at center, Clippers trapping Damian Lillard

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As we will every day through the rest of the playoffs — because we care about you and your NBA viewing experience… plus, it’s more interesting than another post about the Kings’ coaching situation — here are five things to watch heading into Wednesday night in the NBA.

1) Kevin Love is going to spend more time at center, will Detroit have an answer for it? In the fourth quarter of Game 1 with the Pistons up seven, Cavaliers’ coach Tyronn Lou went deep into his bag of tricks and broke out the small ball putting Kevin Love at center. It worked — Cleveland was +13 the rest of the way with that lineup and won the game. Andre Drummond struggled to chase Love out at the three-point line, and eventually Stan Van Gundy benched him (although he didn’t match going small, Aron Baynes was on the floor). It’s a small sample size from one game, but you can bet the Lue will dial this lineup again in Game 2 at some point — if something works in the playoffs you use it until the other team proves to you they stop it. No mercy.

Stan Van Gundy and the Pistons know it’s coming, but what are they going to do about it? This is not a team built to go small, and they are not the same without Drummond on the floor. Maybe play some zone. Certainly they need to punish Love defensively where he is weak, not just simple post ups but more likely have Drummond setting high picks and make Love defend the pick-and-roll. You know SVG will have a counter, but how well will it work? This is going to be the fun part of the chess match.

2) Can Detroit get into the paint with the Reggie Jackson/Andre Drummond pick-and-roll? Cleveland’s game plan on the Pistons ultimately worked — do not let the dangerous Reggie Jackson/Andre Drummond pick-and-roll get into the middle of the paint, make the Pistons’ shooters — Marcus Morris, Stanley Johnson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, etc. — beat you with their inconsistent jumpers. The Pistons did just that for the first half and into the third quarter for a while, but when that didn’t work in the fourth Jackson tried to take it upon himself and get to the rim. Jackson had 10 fourth quarter points, but it wasn’t enough. Stan Van Gundy needs to get the Jackson playing downhill and Drummond better positions inside (Tristan Thompson did a solid job on him defensively). It will be interesting to see what Stan Van Gundy and staff draw up as an adjustment.

3) How will Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum deal with aggressive Clippers traps? The Trail Blazers knew it was coming — virtually every team does it to a degree, the Clippers were just more aggressive — but Portland’s guards did not deal with it well. The Clippers trapped to force the ball out of the hands of Lillard and McCollum — the pair still took 33 percent of the Portland’s shots, but that’s down from their 41 percent regular season average. Al-Farouq Aminu and Gerald Henderson both had more shots than McCollum and they didn’t make the Clippers pay the price for those traps (Aminu was 3-of-12 from the floor).

Welcome to playoff basketball — the Clippers will do all they can to take away those first two options of the Blazers’ offense. Expect some tweaks by Terry Stotts to get his guards better looks, but at the end of the day the other Blazers need to knock down their looks.

“It’s obvious they were really pressuring Damian and C.J., on pick-and-rolls, doubling them and forcing them to pass out,” Stotts said after Game 1. “We had some threes on the weak side, we had some rolls to the basket and weren’t able to finish them. But if they’re going to double team Damian and C.J., then other players are going to have to make plays for us.”

4) Is Portland’s defense good enough to slow Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan? While the Clippers’ defense did a respectable job limiting Portland’s first and second options — classic playoff basketball: make options three and four beat you — Portland did no such thing on defense. In Game 1 the Clippers got 28 points and 11 assists from Chris Paul, 19 points from Blake Griffin (who had his best game by far since returning from injury) while DeAndre Jordan added 18 points and 12 rebounds. Those are three All-Star/All-NBA level players, and they are going to put up some numbers, but Portland has to do a better job slowing them down.

The Trail Blazers switched a lot of pick-and-rolls in Game 1 but the Clippers were prepared and responded by posting up Griffin (against Aminu or anyone else smaller on him) and taking advantage of his size and power. Expect the Trail Blazers may move Aminu or Maurice Harkless to guard Paul but that still leaves either McCollum or Lillard to chase J.J. Redick off 47 screens and get worn down. It will be interesting to see how Portland adjusts, but they are not a team loaded with defensive stoppers. Stotts is a fantastic coach, but his is limited with what he can do defensively.

5) Can Charlotte get back to taking, making threes to drive its offense?
On the season, Charlotte was fourth in the league averaging 29.4 three-point attempts per game — and hitting 10.7 of those (36.2 percent). In Game 1 Miami did an excellent job of trying to take that away — Charlotte was 6-of-17 from three. And with that were never really in the game. I expect Charlotte will work to drag Hassan Whiteside into as many pick-and-rolls as they can — he prefers to lay back and protect the paint rather than hedge out, and if/when he does that should open up good looks for Kemba Walker from three. Nicolas Batum needs his looks from deep as well, and Charlotte’s ball movement was not nearly as good as it was during the regular season.

Charlotte was a much better home team than road one this season, but in this best-of-seven they need to win one game in Miami. To do that, they need to bring the long ball back. Chicks dig the long ball, Charlotte needs to, too.

Cavaliers’ Kendrick Perkins not into “all that new stuff” like Chewbacca

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Chewbacca was at Game 3 in Cleveland Saturday. Sitting courtside.

Why? Because growing up on Kashyyyk he played a little hoop and admires LeBron James‘ skill? Because Drake gave him the tickets? Maybe. I mean, it’s not like that was just a clever little publicity stunt for a movie.

After the Cavaliers’ win, Kevin Love decided to make a little joke of it with noted humorist Kendrick Perkins, and it went over as well as expected (with Dave McMenamin of ESPN catching it).

That’s vintage Perkins.

Celtics’ Terry Rozier on Game 3: “We needed to get our butts whooped”

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Cleveland dominated Game 3 Saturday night. They played harder, to start. The Cavaliers’ defensive pressure on the ball was better, they were sharper rotating out to shooters and covering passing lanes. Cleveland’s role players stepped up and helped LeBron James.

Boston, meanwhile, wilted in the face of that pressure Saturday, something it has done a few times on the road these playoffs. The Celtics got away from the things that got them to the Eastern Conference Finals. Guard Terry Rozier put it more bluntly, via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston:

“I feel like we needed this (loss) to get us back … to get us ready for Monday,” Rozier said.

Rozier later added, “We needed to get our butts whipped. Come back to reality and take care of business on Monday.”

Cleveland is a championship team — from LeBron James on down through the core guys, they all have rings. They have been down before, and heading home it was expected they would play with force. Cleveland’s back was against the wall and they responded.

From the Celtics’ perspective, they also got a little too fat and happy and were not ready for what the Cavaliers came with in Game 3.

Now the pressure is on Boston to push back, to get back to their level of execution and do it under pressure. Make the Cavaliers prove the improved defensive effort was not a one-off game. The Celtics must move the ball and play with some pace, then see if the Cavaliers can keep it together in the face of crisp play.

When this series heads back to Boston Wednesday, it will either see the Celtics in control up 3-1, or the series will be a best of three (with the Cavs still having to figure out if they can win on the road). At home, the Cavaliers are going to play with force again and have some depth. We’ll see if Game 3 was enough of a wakeup call for Boston.

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.