Playoff Preview: In-Depth Guide to “3-6 Mafia” Seeds In East

Insight6 years ago13 min readChristian Hernandez

Editor’s Note: Story was published right before Wednesday’s games. Some statistics may vary.

Here’s a first glance look at how the Hawks, Celtics, Heat and Hornets have all been since the All-Star break, to get a better sense of where the state of each of these squads are before the postseason tips-off this Saturday.


Designed by Brian Goins

As quantified in the group chart above, the Hawks have the best net rating in the East since the All-Star break, just above the Cavaliers.

Meanwhile, the Hornets have the best record in the East with Miami only one game behind in that span.

All four of these teams have shown the talent and execution to legitimately compete with the likes of Toronto and Cleveland and, furthermore, their current casts (besides the Heat) have been able to make it through the season just slightly unscathed.

For this reason, let’s measure each team individually to find out what exactly is driving their success by evaluating four key areas:
1) Who’s their best player?
2) What’s their most-used 5-man lineup?
3) What’s their best 5-man lineup?
4) And of course, determining what their wild-card X-factor is?

All information below is obtained via NBA Stats during play post the All-Star Break.

Atlanta Hawks

1. Best Player: Paul Millsap

While you could make a strong argument for the incredibly consistent Al Horford, Millsap has shown his ability to affect a game on so many levels for the Hawks.

Millsap, since the All-Star break, is averaging 16.2 points, 10 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.8 steals and 2.3 blocks.

He’s doing it all like a poor man’s vintage Tim Duncan, which has gone mostly unnoticed in the same way Duncan tends to fly under the radar with his brilliance.

The Hawks are outscoring opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions when he’s in the game. Millsap’s defensive rating of 96.2 is second best in the NBA since the break, trailing teammate Al Horford (94.5) who has been best in the NBA.

2. Most-Used 5-Man Lineup: Jeff Teague – Kyle Korver – Kent Bazemore – Paul Millsap – Al Horford

The Hawks starting lineup has come alive since the break, outscoring opponents by 14.6 points per 100 possessions, which ranks third-best among 5-man lineups (minimum 200 minutes).

Their starting five is giving up 91.1 points per 100 possessions: The NBA’s most stingiest unit since the break. To put it into context, the Warriors starting lineup is giving up 3.7 more points per 100 possessions.

3. Best 5-Man Lineup (> 70 Minutes): Jeff Teague – Kyle Korver – Kent Bazemore – Paul Millsap – Al Horford

Conveniently for Atlanta, their most-used lineup is also their best lineup, which will only simplify things once the playoffs come around. The Hawks have done a solid job minimizing the minutes on their roster, with no one player averaging more than 32 minutes per game.

Meanwhile, Kyle Korver has rediscovered his shooting stroke during the second half, improving his 3-point percentage from 38 percent pre-All-Star break to 43 percent afterward.

This just adds to a lineup that already has five players who can all shoot the ball rather effectively from 3. Although, Kent Bazemore, who’s shooting 27 percent on 3-pointers since the break, has struggled.

4. X-Factor: Defense

The Hawks turnaround in the second half can be directly attributed to their defensive play. Before the All-Star break, the Hawks were giving up just under 100 points per 100 possessions. Since then, they’ve cut down that number to 96 points per 100 possessions, which has been best in the NBA.

Paul Millsap has been an impressive low post defender despite his size, holding opponents to 50 percent within six feet of the rim (ninth best in the NBA), and 11 percent lower than their opponent’s average. Simultaneously, the Hawks have five players (Jeff Teague, Thabo Sefolosha, Bazemore, Korver and Tim Hardaway, Jr.) who are all holding their opponents below 40 percent from the field.


Boston Celtics

1. Best Player: Isaiah Thomas

Thomas is the best player on a team that is very well-rounded and widely considered to be a team without a bonafide star. Thomas has averaged 24 points, 5.4 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 1.0 steals with 44/38/83 shooting splits.

His ability to lead this team’s offense, despite being an undersized point guard, only speaks to his ability to play the game. He has been the Celtics’ best long-range threat since the All-Star break, shooting 38 percent from three on six attempts per game.

The Celtics are outscoring opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions with Thomas on the court, best amongst Boston’s rotation players. His ability to limit turnovers is one of his best qualities, averaging the second-lowest turnover ratio among guards with usage rates above 30 percent.

2. Most-Used 5-Man Lineup: Isaiah Thomas – Avery Bradley – Jae Crowder – Jared Sullinger – Amir Johnson

The Celtics’ starters haven’t been making much of a difference since the All-Star break, outscoring opponents by only half a point per 100 possessions. This means their group is playing teams to a draw.

A lot of the offensive struggles this unit has encountered (48.9 percent effective field goal percentage) can be attributed to a sharp decline in Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder’s 3-point shooting.

Crowder and Bradley are second and third on the team in three-point attempts since the break, while only shooting 30 percent and 32 percent, respectively. Before the break, Crowder and Bradley were shooting at 37 percent and 35 percent from beyond the arc. If they can somehow regain their shooting touch in the postseason, they’ll become a much harder squad to overcome.

3. Best 5-Man Lineup (>70 Minutes): Isaiah Thomas – Evan Turner – Avery Bradley – Jared Sullinger – Amir Johnson

This lineup is almost the same as their starting five, except Evan Turner replaces Jae Crowder. In his place, this unit has outscored opponents by 9.5 points per 100 possessions, led by significant improvements in both their offensive and defensive ratings compared to their starting unit.

And by having both Thomas and Turner together on the court, it gives Boston two very capable ball handlers who can ease the team’s pressure to create offense.

Turner, in particular, needs to be focused on, as he’s been one of Boston’s most impactful players since the break. The 27-year old guard is averaging 11.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.3 steals on 48/50/80 shooting splits while holding his opponents to 41 percent from the floor on defense. He’s been making a difference all over the court and should be in consideration for the 6th Man of the Year award.

Turner’s been making a difference all over the court this season and should be in consideration for the Sixth Man of the Year award.

4. X-Factor: Ball Control

The Celtics have been commended all year long for overachieving without an elite talent on their roster. And a lot of it starts with Head Coach Brad Stevens, who will surely be considered as a candidate for Coach of the Year.

Since the break, the Celtics have the second-lowest turnover rate in the NBA, while forcing opponents into the seventh-highest turnover rate, defensively. That results in Boston totaling the most field goal attempts and field goals made in the league, an average of about four more shots per game.

What has kept the Celtics from taking the next step has been their shooting efficiency, which has been among the worst in the league since February.

Boston is bottom-five in both field goal percentage and 3-point shooting since the break, but if they continue to play to their disciplined style and find some shooters’ luck, they could be a very tough out for any team that’s lined to face them in the first round.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Boston Celtics

Charlotte Hornets

1. Best Player: Kemba Walker

Walker has quietly been one of the best point guards in the league since the All-Star break, averaging 22.6 points, 5.4 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals on 44/40/84 shooting splits. He is one of only four players to shoot at least 40 percent from 3 on at least seven attempts per game, joining Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Damian Lillard.

2. Most Used 5-man Lineup: Kemba Walker – Courtney Lee – Marvin Williams – Nicolas Batum – Cody Zeller

The Hornets have one of the most over-used starting lineups in the league, totaling 397 minutes of play since the break – third-most in that span. However, they’ve been outscoring opponents by 9.9 points per 100 possessions, which is the fifth-best 5-man lineup since the break (min. 200 minutes).

3. Best 5-Man Lineup (> 70 Minutes): Kemba Walker – Courtney Lee – Marvin Williams – Nicolas Batum – Al Jefferson

This 5-man unit is the exact same as their starting five, except veteran Al Jefferson replaces Cody Zeller. This lineup has outscored opponents by 11.1 points per 100 possessions in 73 minutes. They’ve also been on pace to score 118.7 points per 100 possessions, which is tenth-best in the league amongst 5-man lineups.

4. X-Factor: Shooting

The Hornets main lineups feature a combination of Kemba Walker, Courtney Lee, Marvin Williams and Nicolas Batum, who are all shooting at least 35 percent from 3 since the break. Charlotte also has guys in Troy Daniels (47 percent, 3-point percentage) and Jeremy Lin (38 percent, 3-point percentage) who can shoot the ball above league average.

This team was built for the modern-day NBA and the results are only reinforcing the thought process. The spacing on this team has helped Walker burst onto the scene, as he has plenty of room to operate and plenty of shooters to distribute to once he’s broken down a defense.


Miami Heat

1. Best Player: Hassan Whiteside

The Heat have had quite the turnaround after losing their best player, Chris Bosh, to blood clots for most likely the remainder of the season, and for the second season in a row.

Bosh’s departure opened the door for the emergence of the previously enigmatic Hassan Whiteside, who since the break, is averaging 17.6 points, 13.5 rebounds and 3.4 blocks. He’s currently tied for the league lead in double-doubles (22) since the All-Star break.

Whiteside has always had the potential to be the best player on the court, and he’s been showcasing it as of late, punctuated by a refined free throw stroke that has improved his free throw percentage from 55 percent before the break, to 73 percent since then.

That leap has eliminated the fear of “Hack-a-Hassan” and gives Erik Spoelstra the confidence to leave him on the court during key stretches at the end of the game.

No statistic better encapsulates Whiteside’s impact than this one: Since the break, Whiteside is defending 7.8 field goal attempts within six feet of the rim (second-most in NBA) and is holding opponents to 47.7 percent on those attempts (NBA-best). Nobody else is adversely affecting shots in the NBA more than “Count Blockula” himself.

2. Most-Used 5-Man Lineup: Goran Dragic – Dwyane Wade – Joe Johnson – Luol Deng – Amar’e Stoudemire

The Heat’s starting lineup has been fantastic since the break, outscoring opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions. That has been the sixth-best 5-man lineup in the NBA since the break.

This lineup’s domination is directly tied to the incredible improvement the offense has shown since Joe Johnson’s arrival. The lineup is scoring 118.5 points per 100 possessions, the second-highest scoring unit in the league. And what’s interesting, is that they’re doing this while playing at a very slow pace (~94 possessions per 48 min.).

3. Best 5-Man Lineup (> 70 Minutes): Josh Richardson – Dwyane Wade – Joe Johnson – Justise Winslow – Hassan Whiteside

This lineup has thrived in recent weeks with the emergence of Josh Richardson and Johnson’s arrival. This unit is outscoring opponents by 14.6 points per 100 possessions, sixth-best in the NBA since the break, and has outscored opponent 121.7 points per 100 possessions, third-highest (greater than 70 min.) That can be largely attributed to the lights-out shooting both Johnson and Richardson have displayed as of late.

Richardson is leading the NBA in three-point shooting (58 percent) amongst qualified players since the break. Johnson hasn’t been too shabby himself, shooting 42 percent from behind the arc. Combined, they have improved the general spacing for Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade to maneuver and operate, which has fixed a lot of their issues that was ailing this team in the beginning of the season.

Anybody who watched the Heat could see a lot of their problems could be easily fixed with a good shooter or two, and that has proven to be exactly what this team needed to get over their hump.

4. X-Factor: Efficiency

The additions of Johnson and Richardson to the rotation have propelled the Heat to shoot 49 percent from the field, league-best since the break (just ahead of Golden State). They have also gone from one of the worst 3-point shooting teams before the break (32 percent) to the third-best 3-point shooting team (38 percent), as well.

This has turned the Heat into the fourth-highest scoring team (108 points per game) in the association, with the sixth-best point differential (+5.1). This Warriors-like efficiency is the main reason why they’ve been punishing teams despite playing at a slower pace than the majority of the league.

However, this makes the Heat vulnerable when they turn the ball over too much because it gives them fewer possessions to work with relative to a team that operates at a faster pace. This will be important given the possibility of facing the Celtics or Hornets, two of the best teams in the league at turning their opponents over.


Final Thoughts

When taking each team’s recent play into account, you have to like the chances of the Hawks and Heat, given their strongest lineups ability to dominate a game.

Meanwhile, the Celtics and Hornets each thrive in areas that can make life extremely difficult for their opponents. These two playoff series should be incredibly intriguing regardless of their outcome.