Grown up hoops in the NBA Playoffs

Last weekend I, along with thousands of other Penn grads, traveled down from New York to Philadelphia for Alumni Weekend and my five year reunion. It was a weekend of excess and revelry — we took a damn party bus to get there, for chrissakes — but it was also, through the Yuengling and nostalgia, a time for reflection. Seeing campus under the bright spring sun unleashed a flood of memories and brought back that sacred notion of being in a place where everyone is just learning. That’s the job!

And in this respect, there was also some heartache. The one thing I regret most from my time in college is that I didn’t take as many classes as possible, didn’t explore as much as I could have, showed up high to my experimental poetry class and never even learned to read. OK, so that last part is slight exaggeration, but I look back at what I considered hard work then, compared to what I now understand is the steady grind of adult labor, part of me wishes I could slap that N64 controller out of my hand (Super Smash Bros. will wait!).

But for all my drunken ruefulness at seeing the buildings in which I didn’t always give my all — or more accurately, didn’t know what “my all” was — I understood that my regret was also a sign of some maturity. In those five years I had grown in my capacity to work, to focus on the future and execute in the moment. This maturity, more than intelligence or even pure experience, can often be what separates a 27 year old from a 22 year old. It’s also what separates mature basketball teams from those who, even when talented enough to make a deep run into the playoffs, are still a ways from the force they can eventually become. The four remaining series in the playoffs have brought this lesson into laser focus.

Genius level hoops

If you are intentional and purposeful in your life, it’s hard to not see much of what you do with the critical eye of the scientist. These inputs yield these results, adjust, iterate, adjust, iterate. No team embodies this process like the Miami Heat.

Watching them shred the vaunted Chicago Bulls defense, the same one that has often flummoxed them since LeBron James and Chris Bosh arrived in Miami, even with Dwyane Wade at half speed, has been startling. They approach each position as a sort of experiment. They know the answer — an open shot — but exactly how they’ll stripping away the layers of Chicago’s defense is a function of their own actions. Dribble baseline and see this shift, then make this read, and so forth, until the thing unravels.

They can play with such precision even against Chicago because they’ve spent three regular seasons developing the spacing, timing and chemistry (along with individual skill development from James and Bosh) to approach any problem.

Couper Moorhead details these developments in his excellent story on Here’s a particularly telling excerpt featuring assistant coach David Fizdale:

We tried to fit LeBron into a system instead of building a system around LeBron. We got burned doing it. We got all the way to the Finals with it. We could have won that Finals if certain things go certain ways, but are we trying to make sure that we have the best player on the court every night? And if we’re trying to have the best player on the court every night in LeBron, then we’ve got to build our system around him. So we had to go back to the drawing board and really reevaluate the way we attack teams.

What we try to do is just give LeBron a lot of outlets … So instead of hiding behind the defense with our big, we try to get him to the middle of the floor like you’re attacking a trap or a halfcourt press. We get a big in the middle, get a guard in front of the ball, in the slot and in the corner and we just try to move it and get him in rotation as much as we can. But it’s easier said than done. A lot of times you’re not going to get a lot of great stuff on them on standstill strong-side stuff. You’ve got to get it moving.

It takes discipline too, and you’ve got to really be focused on the attack because you can get baited into just playing on the strong side against these guys and between them, Indiana and Memphis, those teams are awesome at guarding that kind of set.

There’s no question that Miami’s sheer talent is good enough to get to the Finals, and probably even win a title. But a willingness to scrap the obvious plan, to dig deeper and investigate their own capabilities is why they’ve hardly missed a step with Wade hurt. The Heat system and the team identity rely on James, not Wade. Maximizing the team’s effectiveness meant pushing the former franchise player and Finals MVP to the periphery to better suit the way James can play with guys like Bosh, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers.

Like me, James probably wishes he could go back and tell the player smashing his head against the Celtics wall what he knows now about personal and professional improvement, about what it takes. But no one, not even James, is allowed to just get it (Note: somehow Tim Duncan escaped this rule).

The “it” in “get it” takes failure, focus, adjustments, iterations.

Ready for the big time?

A ready contrast to the careful sculpting in Miami is Oklahoma City’s system of overwhelming production. Seven months ago, coach Scott Brooks had James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant — three fantastic talents each capable and efficient when creating one-on-one. In the second round of the playoffs, he’s down to one Caesar from that triumvirate. And in part because his best players are so young, and in part because the Thunder are in the same stage as the Heat in 2011, his team was not prepared to adjust.

OKC’s system, in the loose sense of the word, was designed to give Durant and Westbrook free reign to impose their prodigious talent. And there’s no replacing Westbrook or comparing the impact of losing him even to the Heat completely losing Wade. But there’s also no comparing the two team’s preparedness and ability to adjust to different opponents and challenges.

Looking back, it’s easy to wonder why Reggie Jackson didn’t play 25 minutes in a single game until the last week of the season. He’s going to be a nightmare to handle alongside Westbrook next season when the Thunder go to two point guard lineups. Or why the Thunder don’t have a high comfort level with Durant at the four the way the Heat, on both ends, know exactly how to adjust to LeBron fronting the post and the opposition’s big covering one of the Heat’s smaller shooters.

The Thunder already had something that worked, and worked better than anything any other team except one did in the regular season. But winning all those games wasn’t the only goal of the regular season. The idea is to peak at the postseason, to use those 82 games to experiment and grow. That’s really the only upside of an 82 game season from a team’s perspective. Although it’s too long, stresses players’ bodies to the point of injury and necessitates a ton of meaningless games, by taking a scientific approach to each game, it’s possible to infuse them with meaning.

There’s no questioning Scott Brooks’ intentions, or that the Thunder players aren’t willing to do what it takes to reach their potential, Westbrook’s injury has exposed them to adversity that they would not (and likely could not) force upon themselves during the regular season.

Like the Heat in 2011-12 summer, the true test of Brooks coaching will be whether things change next season.

Too smart for their own good

For more than a decade, the San Antonio Spurs have been the model of this mature, scientific approach to the regular season. They rest their players and stress their bench players in long minutes of tight games so that they preserve their health and gain experience that can serve them down the road.

In fact, there’s an argument that the Spurs are too good at the regular season, and that their proficiency during those 82 games, and the near-perfect systemization of their offense and defense, leaves little room for growth during the playoffs. In each of the last three playoffs, they’ve been ambushed by a young team that suddenly figured something out that had eluded it for much of the regular season.

In 2011, Memphis lost Rudy Gay and sprouted a voracious defense and efficient Z-Bo. A year later, the Thunder suddenly started passing the ball like they hadn’t all year. Their assists skyrocketed and the spacing and precision of their offense, seemingly out of nowhere, reached new heights. This year, the Golden State Warriors lost David Lee and began handing those power forward minutes to Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green while at the same time finding Andrew Bogut as healthy as he’s been all year. This unlocked the true power for their long, versatile wings on defense orbiting Bogut’s steady presence, and Bogut’s passing, combined Stephen and the Currys has been a mighty offense.

What are the old and practiced Spurs supposed to do? Popovich would never go a full season without testing out small ball lineups for long periods, or imposing a more effective spacing arrangement in the Spurs’ offense. They’ve already figured it out, it’s almost not fair that other teams have so much more potential for immediate improvement.

Time to grow up already

The Knicks are one of the oldest teams in the NBA. In theory, they would play like the 2011 Mavericks, masking a few flaws with creative, savvy defense and destroying their opponents with ball movement, shooting, and a devastating individual player. In reality, they’ve routinely broken their identity throughout the playoffs, leading Tyson Chandler to say the following:

I watched the tape myself and there are open looks. We have to be willing passers. You have to sacrifice yourself sometimes for the betterment of the team and for the betterment of your teammates. So when you drive in the paint and you draw, you kick it. I think we need to do a better job of allowing the game to dictate who takes the shots and not the individuals.

What he’s describing is key players deviating from a system that has, when followed, been incredibly effective for six months of basketball. What he’s describing is an immature team. The whole point of having a team loaded with is to have players who can follow the gameplan, who have developed the mental dexterity to make adjustments on the fly.

That’s not who or where these Knicks are. Meanwhile the Pacers, for all their mishaps on offensive, know exactly what they’re doing on every possession on defense. They have a system that everyone trusts, and that is expertly designed to prevent three pointers and layups. It’s championship level good, and championship level consistent. And it’s why it’s harder and harder to see the Knicks winning three out of the next four games.

I’m just hoping that five years of growth from graduation have left me like the Thunder — still plenty of potential — and not the Knicks.

Related posts:

  1. NBA Playoffs: Adjustments for May 2 games
  2. Nowitzki and James: Making and unmaking myths in the NBA Playoffs
  3. NBA Playoffs: Adjustments for ATL-BOS, LAL-DEN
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