picketfence

Note: This column was written before any of the first second round games had been played.

One round down and three more to go.

I absolutely love the playoffs. All my best NBA memories come from the playoffs. There’s nothing else in basketball like it. Purists bemoan the lack of team game in the NBA, the way the league can reward selfish play, how too many players mail it in during regular season games. It’s true. I can sometimes get bored watching regular season games where the players don’t seem to have much more of a stake in who wins than I do.

But the NBA playoffs is usually better basketball than you’ll see anywhere, including March Madness (that’s another column).

Even though the Raptors didn’t make it to the real NBA season, that doesn’t mean Raptor fans shouldn’t watch. The playoffs are not only a hell of a lot more fun to watch than the majority of the 82 Raptor games we had to slog through, there’s a lot you can learn from watching them. Here is a list of what I’ve learned (or had confirmed):

THE SPURS ARE BUILT FOR THE PLAYOFFS

I’m in awe of the Spurs organization. I will fully admit it. There was a time when I would predict the Spurs would win the title and be right half of the time.

Some background.

For twelve years, ever since Tim Duncan came on board, the Spurs were in the top 3 in the league in defense. Then, due to an aging core and lack of good defenders, their defense slowly fell out of the top 3, then top 5, then top 10. Last season, The Spurs ranked 11th defensively, allowing 100.6 points per 100 possessions.

Meanwhile, to compensate, they increased their offensive efficiency until, last year, they became the most offensively efficient team of the league, up from 14th when they won their last title.

Gregg Popovich, however, realized that if they truly wanted to have a chance at another title, they needed to improve their defense. Of the last 22 teams that won a title, only one, the Dallas Mavericks, wasn’t in the top 10 defensively during the regular season (read this article for more details on what they felt they needed to improve and why).

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While they did come into the season with more of a focus on improving certain things to help their defense, what I think changed the complexion of the team defensively was when Tiago Splitter was permanently inserted into the starting lineup in the middle of December. That’s when the Spurs’ defense really started clicking. Splitter is a much better interior defender than both Boris Diaw and DeJuan Blair, who saw his playing time plummet after the demotion.

When Duncan and Splitter are on the floor together, the Spurs have easily the stingiest defense in the league. And to make matters worse for the rest of the league, they kept their offensive efficiency up so that, at one point before injuries hit, they had the best offense AND the best defense in the league.

Watching the Spurs dismantle the Lakers was a thing of beauty (unless you’re a Lakers fan), but what may have been most impressive was how they didn’t let up in game four when they easily could have.

The Spurs never let the Lakers have a chance to think they could win the game. They came out of the gate playing hard and won every quarter. When a team has easily won the first three games, it’s close-out games like this that are a good indicator just what kind of team they are. The Knicks came out in game four against Boston lethargic and looking like a team that believed they had already wrapped up the game and the series. And then they went on to lose the next two.

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And that’s why the Knicks should never have been considered a contender.

The Spurs, though, are the league’s best chance to beat the Heat in the Finals. Not only is their offense the most efficient and beautifully designed, and their defense one of the stingiest, what their close-out game against the Lakers showed is that they are professionals who take their job seriously.

Before the start of game four, Kenny Smith said that Gregg Popovich wouldn’t have to tell his players to play hard. That they just would. And that’s why the Spurs would win game four, which they obviously did. Smith was basically saying that the Spurs players were all self-motivating, so there was no need to have to try and motivate them.

Getting back to the Raptors, how many times have we read that if only this player were motivated or that player were motivated, then the Raptors would be better. The trick is not to motivate the players on your team. The trick is to have players you don’t actually need to motivate.

THE NUGGETS WERE NOT BUILT FOR THE PLAYOFFS

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The Denver Nuggets won an astounding 57 games with a roster of players that didn’t include one player who made the All Star team (although to be fair, Andre Iguodala is a former All-Star and Ty Lawson will probably end up becoming one). and without a top 5 draft pick. The Nuggets were the shining example for fans of all those teams that didn’t have an elite player, but still wanted a great team.

George Karl deserves a lot of the credit for the Nuggets vastly overachieving during the regular season. He maximized the team’s strengths and minimized it’s weaknesses. The team had very little interior scoring, and few good outside shooters, which would normally be a recipe for disaster in the NBA, but Karl realized he also had an athletic roster, one of the fastest point guards in the league and an undersized power forward with boundless energy.

Unlike a lot of teams that try to run, the Nuggets still played good defense (finishing 11th in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions and 11th in opponent field goal percentage), anchored by their best defensive player, Iguodala. The fact that they gave up the the 7th most points per game in the league is deceiving, since they also scored the most points per game in the league. One of the things that made them successful, though, was the fact that they took an amazing 43% of their shots at the rim, shooting 66.4% there. They were took more shots at the rim than any other team and had the 8th best shooting percentage from that range.

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The team that shot the next most shots at the rim, the Houston Rockets, shot 37% of their shots there and shots 64.8% there, which was 14th in the league.

If you can play some defense, and can shoot that many shots at the rim, shooting that high a percentage, you’re going to be successful in the regular season.

But then came the playoffs.

While everyone loved the Nuggets during the regular season, there were questions about how they would perform in the playoffs. Nuggets general manager, Masai Ujiri, even stated outright that despite winning 57 games, the Nuggets weren’t contenders. And he was right.

The Nuggets have three major weaknesses that would come back to haunt them in the first round against Golden State. They can’t shoot from the three (25th in the league in 3 point percentage), they can’t defend the three (11th in the league in percentage allowed, but first in the league in 3 pointers allowed) and they have no one who can score in the paint in a half court set. Those three are all killers in the playoffs.

Golden State shot 40% from behind the arc as a team. Plus, they had one thing the Nuggets didn’t have. An elite player.

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When the chips were down, the best shooter in the league today, Stephen Curry, was able to hit the big shots for the Warriors, whereas the Nuggets by-committee play meant that no single person was expected to step up and no one really did.

No one should blame George Karl for failing to get a 57 win team past the first round of the playoffs (too much- I think he definitely got out-coached by Mark Jackson), because that’s not what they were built for. If Denver had played a team that would have slowed the pace down, the results would probably have been even worse. The only reason the Nuggets even had a chance against the Warriors is because the Warriors like to run, as well.

ANDREW BOGUT IS MORE VALUABLE THAN DAVID LEE

When David Lee went down with a hip flexor injury in game one against the Nuggets, it was definitely a disappointment. Lee was in his 8th season and was playing in the playoff for the first time in his career. Lee was having probably the most satisfying season of his NBA career, up until then. He was on the best team he’d ever been on, and made the All Star game for the second time. He’s an incredibly hard worker, scored 20 or more points forty times, during the season, and led the league in double doubles.

But David Lee is a horrible defender.

How bad? Watch this:

That’s right. Opposing players actually shoot BETTER at the rim when Lee is defending.

That’s why the Warriors traded for an injured Andrew Bogut last year, despite the fact that he had only two seasons where he played more than 69, and had two where he missed more games than he played. The fact is, he’s a very good interior defender and fundamentally sound big man who rebounds, passes, can shoot from outside and score in the post when needed.

In game six against the Nuggets, he scored 14 points, grabbed 21 rebounds and blocked 4 shots, plugging up the paint and preventing the Denver players from scoring where they love to most, at the rim.

Bogut’s importance to Golden State getting to the second round highlights my theory that, despite the way the NBA has changed, having a good two-way center is still very important in the NBA.

It’s highly unlikely that Golden State gets past the Spurs, but Bogut is only 28 years old and is one of the keys as to whether or not the Warriors can build on their playoff success. If he can stay healthy and be somewhere close to the player he was in 2010, then Golden State has a legitimate chance to become a real contender.

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This is, once again, why Jonas Valanciunas is so important to the Raptors’ future. Now if only they can find someone at least as good as Curry to play alongside him.

YOUTH IS NICE, BUT VETERANS WIN

Anyone who watched the last few minutes of game six of the Warriors-Nuggets game saw what happens when you have too much youth on the floor in clutch situations. The Warrior players were basically handing the ball to Denver on offense, and the Nugget players seemed to completely forget how bad they are at shooting threes. There were more bad decisions made in in the last two minutes than during an Amanda Bynes Twitter session.

The only player on either team who didn’t play poorly was Iguodala, who was one of the few players on the floor that had been in big playoff games before. It was as if neither team wanted to win, and were begging the other team to take the game.

On a side note, I understand keeping Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the floor at the end, since they are the “greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the NBA“, but why on earth would Mark Jackson leave the rookie Draymond Green out there, especially to throw an inbound pass in the dying seconds with Denver trying to smother every Warrior player? It’s not as if Golden State didn’t have some veterans on the bench who probably wouldn’t have wilted under the pressure. There’s giving your guys experience and then there’s hanging the team out to dry at the worst time. They were lucky. If they had been playing the Spurs, San Antonio would have wiped the floor with them in those last two minutes.

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I’ve always said the difference between a good team and a bad team is what they do in the last few minutes of a ball game. That’s why coaches tend to play veterans over young players, even when it seems to make no sense (cough*Casey*cough).  They know that veterans tend to make better decisions than young players in the clutch.

Note to self: Figure out a way to determine how well veterans play in the clutch versus players with less experience.

The Raptors are a young team, but not that young. Both Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry have been in the league 7 years, now, and Amir Johnson just finished his eighth. The Houston Rockets they are not. Yes, Valanciunas was a rookie, and DeRozan just completed his fourth season, but I wouldn’t put too much weight on the idea the Raptors lost because they were too young. Adding more veterans to the team might certainly help, but doing that just to get into the playoffs doesn’t leave you many options to improve once you get there.

MAKING THE PLAYOFFS DOESN’T MAKE PEOPLE CARE ABOUT YOU

There is a line of thinking among some Raptor fans that if only they’d make the playoffs, they’d start getting attention outside of Canada and garner respect around the league. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.

Case in point, the Pacers-Hawks series.

If you watched that playoff series, then kudos to you, because you were one of the few outside of Indianapolis and Atlanta who did. And quite frankly, given the fact that they were the only playoff teams to finish in the bottom third in attendance, you were one of the few, including those in Atlanta and Indianapolis. And the Pacers are a good bet to get to the Conference Finals.

The Hawks won 44 games to make the playoffs for the 6th year in a row, have one of the best, all around big men in the league, in perennial All Star Al Horford, and will have more cap room than any other team in the league this summer. But no one cares about the Hawks. They’ll get in the news as one of the teams that went after, and failed to get, Dwight Howard, but then they’ll probably end up overpaying someone like Al Jefferson or Brandon Jennings, or simply re-sign Josh Smith for way too much money, and go back to being a mediocre team no one pays attention to.

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Of course, if the Raptors had snuck into the playoffs, they most likely would have taken Milwaukee’s place as chum for the Miami Heat. Miami swept the Bucks, beating them by an average of 15 points over the four games. Let’s not forget that Milwaukee beat the Raptors in all three games they played against them. They have apparently the best interior defender in the league (see the video above), a “dynamic” backcourt, and the average age of their starting five is just 25 years old.

And nobody cares or talks about them.

And neither team is a place where free agents are lining up to go.

And no one is betting against either team falling into the lottery next year.

So while making the playoffs is nice, the whole “creating a winning culture” thing is overrated when you don’t have the talent to actually do something other than just make the playoffs year after year.

THE NETS ARE IN TROUBLE

Before the trade deadline in 2011, the Nets surprised the rest of the league when they traded Deron Williams, who most people didn’t even realize was available. Elite players like Williams are such a rare commodity that the Nets were willing to gut their team in order to acquire him. They traded Devin Harris, Derrick Favors, their 3rd pick, which turned out to be Enes Kanter, and a future first rounder for him.

While neither Favors or Kanter have set the league on fire, yet, they are both considered two of the leagues better up-and-coming big men. In fact, Bill Simmons had them 41st and 45th on his Top 50 Trade Value list. Deron Williams was just four spots better than Favors, on the same list, at 37th. I will admit that’s probably not the best way to argue a player’s worth, but the fact is that if you offer Williams or one of those two bigs to every team in the league, I’m guessing more than a few would pass on Williams and go for either Favors or Kanter. If you give them a choice between BOTH big men or Williams, I don’t know if there’s a team in the league that wouldn’t take the young big men. Including New Jersey.

Williams is still an elite player, but he has more than $80 million coming to him over the next four years. And there’s always the question of whether or not he can remain healthy. Even at his healthiest, he’s not the best defender in the league. When he’s hurt, which he has been for most of his time with the Nets, he’s a veritable sieve.

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And you’d hope that when you pay him the kind of money he’s making, that he can help take the team past the first round.

But then you add Gerald Wallace, who the Nets gave up the 6th pick in the 2012 draft, which ended up being Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard. By the time the Nets traded for Wallace, his game, dependant almost entirely on his athletic ability, was already on the decline. This year, his game fell off a cliff. He averaged 7.7 ppg on .397 shooting (.282 from three). Oh, and he’s still owed more than $30 million over the next three years.

When the Nets traded for Joe Johnson, this summer, they basically went all in on acquiring massively overpriced, declining talent. And he rewarded them with his worst season in more than a decade. And he has $69 million owed to him over the next three years.

By the way, Billy King, the Nets GM, just got a four year extension.

The Nets situation is a great one to look at, if you’re a Raptors’ fan. A lot of fans feel that the team can trade for an elite player, but just look at the Nets. Actually look at the 76ers and Lakers, as well. All three paid a high price to acquire their elite players (Williams, Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum) and not one of them have had much success with them.

Trading away lottery picks in order to win now can also backfire. At this point, it seems like the Raptors didn’t give up a Damian Lillard for Kyle Lowry, but we won’t know what the final result will be for a few years.

And lastly, the Nets skyrocketing payroll should be a huge warning to the Raptors. Just because you spend the money doesn’t mean it will help you win. You need to spend the money wisely.

Let’s hope MLSE doesn’t make the same mistake the Nets did when they extended King.

PREDICTIONS FOR THE SECOND ROUND

Miami vs Chicago: Miami in five

By stopping the behemoth that was the Miami Heat during their win streak, the Bulls, even with Derrick Rose, showed that they matchup well against the Heat. But the Bulls probably won’t win more than one game against a Heat team that has been dominant all season.

Indiana vs New York: Indiana in six

New York has home court advantage, but Indiana has to be the favourite. The Pacers feature the league’s stingiest defense, allowing just 99.8 points per 100 possessions and should be able to control New York’s isolation driven offense. Indiana’s offense, though, is inconsistent, at best, and if David West doesn’t have a good series, the Pacers might be in trouble.

Oklahoma vs Memphis: Memphis in seven

While Russell Westbrook is a flawed player who can hurt the Thunder almost as much as he helps them, you can’t go from Westbrook to Reggie Jackson and expect to weather Westbrook’s injury well. Without Westbrook, Scott Brook’s rather rudimentary offense has been exposed and Memphis’ defense will give them fits. Oklahoma could still win the series, but someone other than Kevin Durant is going to have to come up big.

San Antonio vs Golden State: San Antonio in four

As I said earlier, if Golden State had played like they did in the final minutes of game six in the first round against the Spurs, San Antonio would have made them pay dearly. Golden State is definitely a team on the rise and one to watch for, but San Antonio is playing some of their best ball since they last won a title and mistakes are few and far between with this team. If Stephen Curry gets hot, they might be able to sneak a win in, but even that is unlikely.

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