And now it’s down to four.
Well, one thing’s for sure. These playoffs have highlighted the difference between the East and the West. While every series in the West has been fun and exciting, the East has been like the final season of The Office. Entertaining once in a while, frequently painful to watch, and really only watched by the die hard fans¹.
I find every round gives you something a little different. The stakes are a little higher, the competition a little tougher, and there’s always more storylines to follow.
And like the first round, there were a few lessons I learned (or had confirmed).
THE WARRIORS ARE BETTER CONSTRUCTED THAN THE THUNDER
The Thunder won 13 games more than the Warriors, and have been the team-building model many have wanted to follow throughout the league. In three years, they were able to draft Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden, three of whom will undoubtably appear on this year’s All NBA team, and go from the lottery to the Finals in just four years.
Sam Presti has been touted as one of the best GMs in the NBA and the Thunder have been on the forefront of the analytics revolution. Plus, teams are looking to pick their front office clean, in their search for GMs, just as they’ve previously done with the Spurs (Rich Cho, the current GM of the Bobcats was the Thunder assistant GM), which has be one of the greatest compliments a franchise can have.
So what exactly is the problem?
Well, both the Thunder and Warriors lost All Stars (and the team’s second best player) to injury early in the first round, and while neither team made it out of the second round, the Warriors barely missed David Lee’s presence while Oklahoma went from having the league’s most efficient and high scoring offense, to a team that averaged less than 90 points a game against Memphis.
Obviously Russell Westbrook is a better player than David Lee, and more instrumental to the Thunder offense than Lee is, but it goes deeper than that. Golden State was able to overcome the loss of Lee better because they had more weapons.
While Kevin Durant and Kevin Martin were really the only Thunder players, outside of Westbrook, who had the ability to create their own shot and score consistently, Golden State had Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry and even Harrison Barnes.
Serge Ibaka was Oklahoma’s third leading scorer, but all he proved was that he can’t create for himself and desperately needs to work on his post up game.
Of course, Scott Brooks’ rather pedestrian offensive sets didn’t help, but that brings up the question of whether or not he’s even the right coach to take the team to a title.
But while Sam Presti has surrounded Durant and Westbrook with role players who fill specific roles, but don’t have the ability to expand on that, Golden State features a roster full of players who can step up, if needed, making it more likely they’ll be able to withstand droughts or injuries to their key players better than the Thunder.
And Golden State features more two-way players who can score AND defend consistently (I’m looking at you Kevin Martin).
If you take away Golden State’s two best players and Oklahoma’s two best players, which team would you rather have?
BIG MEN BEATS SMALL BALL
This season we supposedly saw the evolution of the NBA towards small ball, highlighted by Miami’s domination despite not having a legit center on the team for the majority of the season. There were other examples, though. The Knicks won 54 games with Carmelo Anthony as their starting power forward, and Denver won 57 games with Danilo Gallinari often times the tallest players on the court.
And then came the playoffs. Denver was bounced in the first round and the Knicks struggled against and aged and injury depleted Celtics team and their vaunted offence (3rd most efficient offence in the league during the regular season) came to a crashing halt against the Pacers.
Three of the four teams left also happen to have three of the biggest front lines in the league. And the fourth team happens to feature LeBron James, who is bigger and stronger than most starting power forwards in the league, but also happens to be the most dominant offensive player in the NBA and one of the best defensive players. Miami could run anything and be pretty successful at it.
I think the whole small ball revolution thing is overstated and more likely a trend, much like Mike D’Antoni’s 7-seconds or less was. It’s definitely useful, especially in the regular season and in short stretches in the playoffs, but the change we’ve seen has been done more out of necessity, rather than due to it being a better way to play. The dearth of quality centers and lack of good 2-way power forwards has made going small a good way to compensate while knowing few teams will be able to punish you for going small.
Is there any doubt that Oklahoma would be a much better playoff team if they had a big man who could score in the post, as well as defend? They certainly wouldn’t have missed Westbrook’s presence nearly as much if they had a post threat that demanded double teams and could open up the shooters more.
If you want to be a force in the playoffs, you need to be able to compete with the big boys, and you can’t do that without a big front line.
This is obviously good news for the Raptors. For those lamenting Colangelo turning down James Harden for Jonas Valanciunas, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing. Harden is obviously the better player, but if the Raptors want to be successor in the playoffs, they’ll need a guy like Valanciunas.
GOOD COACHING MATTERS
There is a line of thinking that coaching is overrated. The claim is that there are only a small handful of coaches that even make a difference, so unless Gregg Popovich is walking through the door, it really matters very little who the coach is. It explains why we see so many of the same coaches recycled throughout the league, and why Vinnie Del Negro still has a job.
And that may be true, to a degree, in the regular season. In the playoffs, however, coaching matters. Over a seven game series, it’s the adjustments that coaches make that are often the difference between going home early and staying for another round.
After getting blown out by the Nets in the first game of the first round, Tom Thibodeau made some adjustments that slowed the pace and shut down the lane. If the Bulls weren’t being coached by Thibodeau, they probably would have started their summer vacation a couple of weeks earlier.
Memphis wasn’t necessarily a more talented team than the Clippers, but they were definitely better coached. And Lionel Hollins is a better coach than Scott Brooks, too.
That’s why, if I was Memphis , I would lock Hollins up long term, offering him a 10 year contract. It tells the players that this is his team, and it allows the organization to create a system around him and acquire players that fit that system.
Well coached teams play differently than regular teams. No matter what the talent level, they usually do what they’re supposed to do, even if the final result isn’t what they’d hoped. Obviously it helps to have players who fit what the coach wants to run, but the wrong players will tend to play better with a good coach.
Is Dwane Casey the type of coach that makes a difference? Do his teams seem well coached to you? Do his players develop well?
I’ll leave that for you to decide.
DEFENSE STILL MATTERS
Defense has alway been a key ingredient in Championship teams. And despite more of a focus on small ball, and a shortage of good two way big men, the top three defensive teams all made it to the Conference Finals. And Miami isn’t far behind, at 9th, in defensive efficiency.
I’ve always talked about how the deeper you get in the playoffs, the more likely weaker defensive players will be exploited, and those weak links on defense will become more and more difficult to overcome.
That’s why it’s important to build a team with a good defensive base from the start, and not have players that you need to cover for. Because if you have any Championship hopes for your team, you know that you’ll get to a point when you can’t cover for those players, and you’re likely to end up losing because of them.
PREDICTIONS FOR THE CONFERENCE FINALS
San Antonio vs Memphis: San Antonio in 6
Truth be told, I’m writing this after their first game, but that didn’t change my prediction.
I have a difficult time watching Memphis in the Conference Finals for a couple of reasons. The first is because I know in some different reality, they are still the Vancouver Grizzlies and I’m anxiously awaiting the franchise’s first Conference Finals home game, where I’ll be sitting, cheering them on in person.
The second reason is because this is a team that came into the league the same time as the Toronto Raptors, and didn’t even make the playoffs for their first 8 seasons, finishing below the Raptors in the standings for all but one of those years. And now they have made the playoffs more times than the Raptors and have gone deeper than the Raptors ever have.
But that’s not why I’m picking them to lose in six. I honestly wouldn’t have a problem seeing them get to the Finals, especially now that the guy who was responsible for ripping the Grizzlies out of Vancouver is no longer associated with the club: Michael Heisley.
Memphis is an excellent defensive team and very well coached. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are both underrated, and they have some very good role players. But their offense is below average and San Antonio is simply a better team on both ends of the floor.
Miami vs Indiana: Indiana in 6
Just kidding. I wanted to see if you were still paying attention. Actually, I’m picking Miami in 5, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they sweep the Pacers. While the Pacers defense is excellent, like Memphis, their offense leaves something to be desired, and Miami will exploit that. David West isn’t big enough to take advantage of Miami’s lack of interior defense, and Roy Hibbert simply isn’t enough of an offensive threat to make the Heat pay.