Every Play Counts

In N.B.A. Basketball by Brock Bourgase

The intensity of playoff basketball manifests itself in the significance of each play. A team cannot take a play off without consequences – ranging from points which impact the final margin, a change in momentum that triggers a critical run or a lasting impression that defines a reputation. In both N.B.A. Conference Finals, the team that won the first game has lost the most recent contest because all four teams have altered how they have approached every play at either end of the court. Initiative, collaboration and attention to detail have triumphed almost all of the time. It is not that a particular team consciously decided whether or not they would execute according to their gameplan but that the net effect off small differences in the process was a starkly contrasting outcome.

Miami vs. Indiana: Perhaps the Pacers were doomed the moment that the Heat activated their defensive super powers: trapping the ball across the entire court and rotating behind the pressure in a blink of an eye. They have also made a consistent effort of converting loose balls, rebounds and turnovers into high percentage offensive chances by pushing the ball at the speed of lightning. Nevertheless, I feel that Indiana’s inconsistent play has partially enabled Miami’s defensive successes.

In Game 1, the Pacers scored 1.11 points per screen and roll play varying their plan of attack and keeping everyone in motion. The Heat could not anticipate as easily and help defenders had to remain particularly mindful of their original checks, resulting in less pressure. Paul George zippered to the top of the key and immediately used Roy Hibbert’s screen. He turned the corner and drew extra defenders so he kicked the ball to George Hill, who was ready to make an open three-point shot.

After a win in the opening game, things quickly went downhill, if not entirely off a precipice. Excessive isolation, sloppy ballhandling and forced shots characterized Indiana’s play; they looked completely out of Miami’s league. It would be surprising if they were able to reverse their fortunes and win the series now. Seeing repeated glaring and preventable errors leads fans to wonder “what if?” Sometimes you simple have to execute better but in this case, the Pacers must execute better and employ sounder strategies.

In the past three games, they have scored 0.69 points per screen and roll play. In Game 4, Hibbert totally whiffs on a high screen for hill, although if it were a game of touch football, Dwyane Wade would be out. But it’s basketball so Wade slides through the “pick” and continues to play the ball. LeBron James steps up to stop the ball and two and a half men are playing Hill. Hibbert neglects to seal the help inside, teammates stand still and there are no viable passing options. The possession is over, the ball is stolen and Heat convert a 3-on-1 in transition.

San Antonio vs. Oklahoma City: Quite a few observers had written the Thunder off, before and after the calf injury to Serge Ibaka and certainly after the Game 1 and 2 beatings that the Spurs administered (although some remained cautiously optimistic). In the past three years, San Antonio has been threatened by Oklahoma City’s athleticism. The ability of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and James Harden/Reggie Jackson to get to the rim, Ibaka’s paint presence and the possibility of aggressive defense exposes gaps in the Spurs game: contested looks at one end and easy baskets at the other. The Thunder were not able to execute any of their strengths consistent during the first two games, as evidenced by the scoreboard.

At home, San Antonio average sixty points per game and sixty-seven percent field goal percentage in the paint. Durant could not guard Tim Duncan inside and Tony Parker penetrated into the key as much as he desired. In this play, Parker uses a ball screen and dribbled to the foul line. Kawhi Leonard is in the right corner (38 3FG%) and Danny Green is on the right wing (56 3FG%). Tiago Splitter continues his move to the rim as his defender Nick Collison steps up and receives a pass as he ducks in. Kendrick Perkins – who was woefully stationed about ten feet behind the screen – comes over the help so Splitter dishes to a wide open Duncan, a post-to-post pass that exposes the poor positioning of the defense.

At home, the Thunder asserted themselves and forced the Spurs to play their style of game. Not only did Ibaka return and the crowd was energetic but the entire OKC team chose to play differently. They defender the screens more actively and pressured the ball, limiting San Antonio to seventy-six points and a forty-eight percent shooting rate inside. In Game 3, Duncan screened again for Parker but Steven Adams hedged and forced Parker to pull up. There were no passing lanes to the shooters on the strong side and Green did not come high so he could shoot of a reversal. The pass to the roller was slow and Jackson decisively rotated, creating a steal and a dunk for Durant.

The live ball turnovers helped too.