Lessons from the NBA’s second round
Round two of the NBA Playoffs was, well, anti-climatic. Cleveland swept Toronto, while Houston, Boston and Golden State all won in 5 games. While the teams advancing aren’t huge surprises, it was a surprise to see Toronto dominated throughout their series by Cleveland, and the Boston victory was a bit of a shock. No surprises from the West, as everyone saw this Western Conference Finals matchup from the season opener.
As always, there are lessons to be learned from the post-season. Examining to see what went wrong for the eliminated teams is important to evaluate where they go now. Some walk into this offseason feeling great with their season (Utah, Philadelphia) while others have a few questions to answer in the coming weeks (Toronto, New Orleans). The victors examine what worked in the previous round, how they can apply it to a whole new defence and personnel, and try to keep moving towards a NBA Championship. While not as climatic as round one, the second round was not without it’s important lessons. I’m @Parkman15Love, here to break down the Western & Eastern Conference Semi-finals!
1. Failing to stop LeBron as both a scorer and a distributor is a terrible idea.
Good analysis to kick this off!
As if the title wasn’t clear enough, there is a clear consensus around the NBA. If you play a great scorer, make him distribute. Playing a guy who thrives setting up his teammates? Make him beat you by scoring and shut off the rest of the team. LeBron is great at both - so it’s a pick your poison situation. And after the dismal showing from Cleveland’s supporting cast against Indiana, it seemed obvious: Make the others on Cleveland beat you.
However, Toronto went with the BOLD strategy and allowed LeBron effing James to average 35 and 11 against them. By the end of it, he wasn’t even taking the series seriously. LeBron was hitting HORSE shots for game winners and clipping his nails mid game. I’m not a coach, but you think they would, you know, maybe double LeBron? Maybe make someone like Jeff Green or Jordan Clarkson beat you? Yes, his passing is unbelievable. But nobody could guard LeBron, and Dwayne Casey simply didn’t make any adjustments.
2. Brad Stevens is probably the best coach in the NBA.
But he still looks like that teacher who tries to be your friend.
Aside from maybe Popovich, this really can’t be argued to me. You see how well prepared that Stevens has the Celtics prepared, seeing the difference game to game on their cuts, pindown screens and offensive sets. You see them quickly identifying switches on defence, attacking those mismatches and attacking particular players. All traits of a well-coached team. As I break down a little more later on, no more was this evident then towards the end of game 3.
You can’t argue intangibles - how many coaches could lead their team to a 2nd seed after losing their two best players. Kyrie and Gordon Hayward we’re supposed to be their best players. Now, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford have looked like the best players on the floor for both teams. They’re executing extremely well on both ends of the court, and that’s due in part to their coaching advantage. Brad Stevens, hats off to you sir.
3. The Warriors Death Lineup is still the best lineup in the league.
From USA Today: The Curry-Thompson-Igoudala-Durant-Green has played a total of 35 minutes together. In that time, their offensive rating is 125.4, and their defensive rating is 87.7. If you can do math, thats a NET rating of +37.7.
If you narrow that down to game 4 alone, where they played 18 minutes together: Their offensive rating was 130.1, defensive rating was 66.5. Again, NET rating of +63.6. Absolutely ridiculous.
This lineup is formidable already, and it doesn’t include the fact Steph is still playing his way back into form after missing a lot of time in the regular season. Timing is everything in basketball, and Curry is getting back into game shape. A reminder too, their Western Conference finals opponent played a total of 0 minutes against this particular lineup this year. The biggest hurdle for Houston is how they’ll slow down the Hampton’s 5.
4. New Orleans could have really used Boogie this round.
I’ll be the first to eat crow here: In my last article, I doubted whether the Pelicans should resign DeMarcus Cousins.While this opinion remains true for many fans, there were some that thought Boogie could have made a big impact on this series for a few reasons. The biggest reason was to force the Warriors to switch their lineup. As I spoke about above, their death lineup killed the Pelicans. Could switching Anthony Davis onto Durant slowed this down? Maybe. But Davis was also their only rim protection - where Boogie could have helped. Switching ends too, could Durant slow down Davis on that end? Maybe, but he never needed to guard him.
Cousins offensive talent would have made Draymond work that much harder. Cousins size and defensive skills (do not argue Nikola Mirotic is a better defender) would have forced Steve Kerr to adjust and play bigger. The Pelicans have a lot of questions to answer this offseason with their pending free agents, and not a lot of time. If this team continues to improve, Davis will be staying. If not…two years will go by quickly.
5. Is it time for Toronto to rebuild or re-tool?
Now, I do like the Raptors, but it’s become painfully clear that while they’ve improved they can’t beat LeBron 4 times out of 7. Can they beat Boston or Philly in a couple years with this team? That’s probably a different conversation, but I do have my doubts with an aging core that’s only getting more expensive. Can they afford to sign their key bench players too, while giving Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan the money they deserve?
If I were to change places with Masai Ujiri, I would look long and hard at getting a wing that can slow LeBron down and make him work on defence. Ideally, Kawhi or Paul George would be perfect - as unlikely as either may be. However, with no draft picks, it hurts their chances. Maybe it’s time to hit the rebuild button, unless Masai can work some magic. He’s done it before, can he do it again? Toronto does have depth to spare after all.
The question will remain on the minds of the Raptors Organization all summer: How can we beat LeBron James? If they can’t find an answer, we may have seen the last of this team.
6. Chris Paul (or Clint Capela) was probably Houston’s best player against Utah.
James Harden was good. I will not dispute that. What he was, was inefficient: 40% on FGs and 29.5% on 3’s. Especially towards the end of the series, Harden became less and less efficient - 34.1% from the field, and 14.3% from 3. He averaged 3.5 AST against 5.5 TOs. Was he sick? Yes.
Chris Paul became the first player to put up 40+ points and 10+ assists without a turnover in their clinching game. He also had the difficult task of slowing down Donovan Mitchell on defence, and Paul rose to the challenge. Clint Capela completely neutrailzed Rudy Gobert on both ends while averaging almost 14 & 12. But this was the vision of Houston when they traded for Paul. If Harden has a game or two off, Paul can pick up the slack. This series, Chris Paul took over and Capela has probably earned himself a big contract in a few weeks.
7. Utah just needs one more piece.
And to be more specific, they need another person who can initiate the offence and create their own look. Joe Ingles was supposed to be that guy, but that quickly sputtered after a game 2 explosion. Rudy Gobert just can’t be that guy, and Derrick Favors requires another player to help him get to his spots. Is Ricky Rubio that guy? Maybe, but history has shown otherwise. While he can be a great piece for Utah, I believe they need another offensive wing/guard.
If I we’re in Utah’s position, I would be targeting someone along the lines of Tyreke Evans or Will Barton. A long 2/3 that can either come off the bench or start, and run an offense. Hell, even targeting someone like Julius Randle and trusting him to grow could be a solid, under the radar move. Someone along the lines of a “Will Barton” would be perfect. Utah is right on the doorstep of greatness, and I think one more offensive stud would push them to the top.
8. The 76ers inexperience is showing.
From the bottom to the top. Brett Brown was completely outcoached by Brad Stevens, as I talked about earlier.
Their inexperience especially showed at the end of game three. JJ Reddick threw a ball directly at Simmons back in a weird play from the sideline, and had to get bailed out by a Belinelli jumper at the buzzer to get the game to overtime.
In that overtime, Stevens drew up an absolutely gorgeous play to get Al Horford - who was the best player on the floor this series - a layup. Stevens knew they’d switch everything, and dragged Embiid away from the rim. It was a simple lob after that. Later on, Simmons just throws a ball lazily towards Joel, when (who else) Al Horford comes up with a huge steal.
Hell, even the confetti dropped early for Philadelphia. Just a tough end to game 3 that showed how a coach can affect the game. This isn’t all doom and gloom for the young, talented 76ers. They’ve just ran into probably the best coached team remaining. Philly will be back, and learning to lose is an important part of the process.
9. Jrue Holiday is quickly becoming a favorite around the league.
Jrue’s past few years have been about more than basketball. Taking time off to be with his pregnant wife with a brain tumor was a huge sacrifice, and props to the Pelicans for allowing that. Seeing his exchanges with his kid before games was great. As well, on the court he was absolutely fantastic. Not many coaches would give up almost a 7 inch advantage, but they put him on Kevin Durant. While KD got his points (and rightfully so), he did make him shoot quite a bit less efficiently throughout the series. I remind you, they decided to put their Point Guard on one of the best scorers to ever play the game.
Jrue Holiday, you are a great player and a class act.
10. The Western Conference Finals really seems like the finals.
From the trade for CP3, many have said this year will really boil down to Houston vs Golden State. This has everything we’ll want - great offensive vs great defence for both teams. Megastars for both teams - Durant, Steph, Harden and Paul are among the best players in the league. Will Houston finally take down their longtime enemies after finally securing home court?
Now, the Finals do still need to be played, yes. While any combo would be highly entertaining, can you say that GSW-HOU’s match-up isn not the best matchup in the league. Strictly in basketball terms, there isn’t a more evenly matched series that could be played. Now, the series should be a lot of fun. Part of me hates typing this, as well as LeBron as played thus far. But… there’s just too many problems the Cavaliers or Celtics face to beat their Western counterparts. Does anyone really think the winner of the finals will come from the East?
My opinion? I’m taking Golden State. Experience matters, simply put. This will be the Warriors 4th straight trip to the WCF, and this is Chris Paul’s first trip. I will never take Mike D’Antoni as a coaching advantage either, and the combo of Steve Kerr & Ron Adams is just that much better. Klay Thompson is one of the best defensive wings, and is probably the best James Harden defender. Say he gets in foul trouble, they still have Andre Igoudala and Kevin Durant to throw at Harden. Lastly, the Death Lineup of the Warriors may force Clint Capela to the bench in order to match up better. It just doesn’t look like the Warrior have a flaw, and are my pick to move on to the NBA Finals.