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Playoff seeds and matchups are beginning to take shape and rosters in both conferences have been warped by injuries, trade, buyouts and free-agent signings. This period has given us a variety of new wrinkles to explore and a picture of some seldom-used lineups that could have an outsized impact in the playoffs. Here are a few to keep an eye on.
Brooklyn Nets: Kyrie Irving – James Harden – Kevin Durant – Blake Griffin – LaMarcus Aldridge
This is the most extreme version of the Nets, an all-offense lineup that features five players with a history of acting as high-level offensive centerpieces. Griffin and Aldridge are obviously way past their prime but they’re both incredibly skilled and versatile offensive pieces who have looked very, very good in their reduced roles on Brooklyn.
Because of injuries to Durant and Harden, they’ve yet to play a single minute together and their extreme defensive shortcomings mean they’re unlikely to play big minutes together as a five-man unit. Against the Bucks, it means Durant is probably defending Giannis instead of Jeff Green. Against the 76ers, it means Aldridge is handling Embiid instead of DeAndre Jordan. And the shooting of Joe Harris is an important swing piece.
But playing these five together, is also an absolute wild-card, a unit that should be able to handle anything offensively and could succeed simply by outscoring everyone, with the one-on-one talent to exploit any mismatch and the ancillary threats to leverage the bent defense in whatever way it manifests. We may not see this group a ton, but we’ll definitely see them in at least some key moments in the playoffs and how it performs could be huge.
Charlotte Hornets: Devonte’ Graham – Terry Rozier – Gordon Hayward – Miles Bridges – P.J. Washington
LaMelo Ball has gotten the most attention in the Hornets’ surprising playoff run but the entire roster has played well and this group, in particular, offers a fun wrinkle. This extreme small ball unit features two point guards and a trio of swingmen to man the middle. There’s a surplus of both creators and finishers, with all five players hitting at least 37.0 percent of their 3-pointers this season.
They’ve played 67 minutes together this season, outscoring opponents by an average of 30.4 points per 100 possessions with offensive and defensive efficiencies that would both rank as the best in the league if stretched across an entire season. We’ve seen a lot more of this group in the last few games (23 of their 67 minutes) since Ball went down with a broken wrist and they’ve been just as effective.
The Hornets haven’t used this group at all against the Hawks or Heat, who seem like their most likely first-round opponents. But neither team has a dominant scoring big-man who could really force the Hornets out of this lineup and a small ball change-of-pace could be a big advantage.
Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard – CJ McCollum – Norman Powell – Robert Covington – Jusuf Nurkic
The Blazers are working in two big additions — Norman Powell, who they acquired in a deadline trade from Toronto, and Jusuf Nurkic, who just returned from wrist and calf injuries. Over the past two weeks, this group has played 55 minutes together, outscoring opponents by 21.8 points per 100 possessions with elite numbers on offense and defense. The Blazers have largely been a disaster on defense this season, saved by a high-powered offense and the late-game heroics of Damian Lillard.
Nurkic gives them a strong defensive anchor and while Powell isn’t an exceptional defender, he’s a clear upgrade over Carmelo Anthony, Rodney Hood and Anfernee Simons, players whose minutes he’d likely be replacing in this lineup. The Blazers were pounded by the Clippers last night, who swarmed Lillard into inefficiency but Portland was playing without Nurkic who was resting because of a sore knee.
We haven’t had a chance to see this group against their likely Western Conference playoff matchups but this is talented a two-lineup as Portland has been able to field over the past few years and they’re versatile enough to handle heavy minutes against a variety of opponents.
Los Angeles Lakers: Alex Caruso — Wes Matthews — Kyle Kuzma — LeBron James — Andre Drummond
Assuming the Lakers are fully healthy by the time the playoffs roll around, they’ll have some interesting lineup decisions to make. Frank Vogel didn’t often use another big with Anthony Davis in the playoffs last season (just 40 percent of his minutes came with Dwight Howard and/or JaVale McGree). Even if he is going to play with another big this year Montrezl Harrell seems like the more likely option, which means we may see a lot of Drummond coming off the bench with LeBron anchoring these bench units while Davis rests.
Drummond played just one game and 14 minutes with the Lakers before injuring his toe so we still don’t have a great idea of how the Lakers will use him. But in these lineups, it may be more imperative than ever that he’s a capable defensive anchor at one end and willing to forgo post-ups at the other. Static post-ups for Drummond aren’t going to bend the defense and everything will need to run through LeBron with as much motion as possible around him to create open shots for this group.
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The Boston Celtics have veered sharply off the road and they have a lot of big questions to answer about their future between now and the end of the season.