LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant, Part One: The other guys

In past finals, we’ve seen how the matchup between two systems or philosophies — think Dallas’ spread, 3-point heavy attack pitted against Miami’s frantically rotating defense — is almost as important as the matchups between individual talents. However, in the 2012 Finals, the talent is so transcendent that the “offensive systems” are really just simple actions to get great players in position to attack one-on-one.

During the regular season, the Thunder were dead last in terms of the percentage of made buckets that came from assists and the Heat were a the bottom six team in that regard. Both teams use screens to create isolations and run pick-and-rolls designed to get the ball handler to the rim, rather than just into  playmaking position (like, say, Boston’s Rondo-heavy offense).

The point here is that how individual matchups play out is going to be crucial, and none more so than between Kevin Durant and LeBron James, the two best players in the NBA. It’s exceedingly likely that one of these two guys is going to be the Finals MVP. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be directly matched up, especially considering how both Scott Brooks and Erik Spoelstra prefer to use defensive specialists, and that both coaches found success with switch-heavy defenses in the conference finals.

With that in mind, we’ll preview the most prevalent matchups each superstar will face, starting with the defensive specialists.

LeBron James versus Thabo Sefolosha

As the Thunder’s de facto stopper, the Swiss wing will spend significant time checking Miami’s driving force. Sefolosha has shown the ability to change a game defensively, most notably in Game 3 against the Spurs. But slowing the quick but diminutive Tony Parker is hardly the same task as the one awaiting him in the Finals.

James’ trump

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HoopSpeak Network

Heat Feet Paradox

The league admits that LeBron James got away with a travel. This is not unprecedented, his feet certainly skidded on one famous playoff buzzer beater. Rob Mahoney describes the mistake, here:

“However, there are two flaws in James’ execution. The first: he attempts to execute a jump stop but does not land both of his feet on the floor simultaneously, a necessary requirement of the rule…The second: following his jump stop, LeBron reverse pivots using his left foot as his base, but slides his foot over from the white boundary line into the painted area itself.”

This is one incident, but it illustrates what many have noticed: LeBron’s feet, not the most nimble. Eerily perceptive court vision, incredible handle, nice jump shot, great finisher. Feet, not the most nimble. His footwork needs footwork.

In contrast, Dwyane Wade’s feet are more dexterous than your average person’s hand. His Eurostep is legendary, and while his post game is rarely used, it certainly looks cool.

It could be easy to conclude that Wade naturally has better feet than James. But not so fast–I’d hate for you to have to backpedal (Sorry, couldn’t resist the corn). From a Henry Abbott post, on Wade’s tendency to strike with heel when running:

“His knee braces may be a result of his technique inefficiencies. This kind of movement could overload the foot and decrease ankle instability, not to talk of reducing the mobility level of the athlete.” 

The same post demonstrates LeBron to have wonderful, injury-shooing running form. James strikes with the forefoot, Wade strikes with the mid. Dwyane might have plantar fasciitis, LeBron’s maladies are usually abstract media tropes.

The Heat Feet Paradox is just one of many instances that speak to how compartmentalized skills can be at the highest level. If you want a

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Technique of the Week: Going straight up

Joel Anthony eats a Tyson Chandler forearm to stop a dunk without fouling

Technique of the Week is a HoopSpeak feature that highlights the technical nuances that makes great players special and role players meaningful

Technique: Going Straight Up

Why it’s important:

Being able to lock down the opponent’s top offensive threat is great, but what’s even more valuable these days is a defender who can also stop his teammates’ assignments from scoring near the rim. The NBA players who do that best do so by challenging at the hoop without fouling—by going straight up.

It’s almost impossible to stay in front of the big, ultra athletic wings and guards in the league today. As a result, many teams have developed complex defensive schemes designed to keep as many bodies as possible between the ball and the basket without drawing a defensive three second violation. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on rotating defenders to not only get in position to offer resistance, but then actually affect the shot. The increasing value of that role is why light footed big men with little to offer offensively like Tyson Chandler and Joel Anthony seem to be overpaid but probably aren’t.

This technique is rarer than one might assume. Sure, there are plenty of players who can protect the hoop by hacking anything with a pulse that enters the lane. The JaVale McGees of the league enforce a “no easy buckets” policy that reroutes driving players to the freethrow line, but the reality is that there may be no easier NBA bucket than the points earned at the charity stripe. The name says it all—it’s an efficient and reliable method of scoring that truly great defensive teams, like the San Antonio clubs in the mid 2000s, take

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The Boozer dilemma

If the Chicago Bulls fall short of the Finals, Carlos Boozer and Tom Thibodeau will be obvious scapegoats. Thibodeau and the Bulls have thus far been unable  overcome either Erik Spoelstra’s adjustments or LeBron James’s heroic performances. Carlos Boozer, the expensive free agent brought in to turn Chicago’s 27th ranked offense into a Jazz-esque machine of efficiency, has not delivered consistently in the playoffs.

In Game 4, Thibodea gave Boozer ample time to redeem himself and help save his team’s season. Boozer responded with a moderately efficient 20 points and 11 rebounds (though none offensive) in 49 minutes—the most of any Bull in Game 4 and 10 more than Boozer has played in any game in the playoffs.

Clearly Thibodeau believed that Boozer’s impressive 27 point 17 rebound outburst in Game 3 warranted more playing time, and with his team struggling to find reliable offense, more firepower was necessary. Boozer played well, not great, on offense. But playing him so many minutes comes at a heavy cost elsewhere.

The collateral damage to all of Boozer’s minutes starts with Taj Gibson, who played just 10 minutes and, aside from a few defensive possessions, was absent from many of the game’s most important moments. In many ways, Gibson represents what won Chicago 62 games. He rebounds voraciously, he defends with tenacity, has a unique combination of size, quickness and length and always plays extraordinarily hard.

Whereas Thibodeau is comfortable allowing Gibson to switch onto Wade or LeBron and defend without help, he prefers to stash Boozer on Miami’s non-Bosh big, either Udonis Haslem or Joel Anthony. The thinking goes that Bosh is too long and quick for Boozer to handle without help, and when that help comes quick ball movement can find Wade or James, at pace and in space–scary stuff.

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Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!: Bulls-Heat Eastern Conference Final preview

You’ll buy the whole seat but you’ll only use the edge!

The Eastern Conference Finals are set to kick off. To preview the series, Zach and Beckley had a surprisingly gentlemanly discussion of each team’s strengths and vulnerabilities–and how they match up against each other.

Beckley: Zach, you were one of only two ESPN experts who picked the Bulls beat the Heat, and you picked them to win in 6. I’ve got the Heat in 6, not because I think the series won’t be incredibly close, but because I like the Heat to close out at home. Both teams have an attacking style, but I think Miami’s will be more diverse in every aspect of the game, from coaching to offensive weapons to defensive schemes. Where do you see this series turning for the Bulls? Zach: Beckley, I agree this series will be incredibly close and I wouldn’t say I’m exactly confident in my final prediction for this series. But where I see the series turning for Chicago is on the offensive boards. Doesn’t it seem a little strange that Carlos Boozer can be oddly effective without ever actually doing anything positive in the post or on the pick-and-pop (Game 6 against Atlanta excluded)? He is SO Andrew Bynum in the way pushes people out of defensive rebounding position. And while I don’t buy into this ideal that Chris Bosh isn’t a real man or is actually a she-male or whatever sexist little shits are calling it these days, his ability to get pushed out of position by Carlos Boozer seems to be heightened in this matchup.

Between Joel Anthony and Chris Bosh inside, they’re very effective but also very slight of build. They can go get rebounds but I’m not confident they can root their way into

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What’s gone wrong with Boston’s pick and roll defense?

This Miami-Boston series was supposed to be can’t-miss television; intense, physical, grind-it-out affairs featuring two of the league’s best defensive teams. After two games, it looks as only the Heat’s “D” has shown up and, because of that, the Celtics head back to Boston down 0-2 and searching for answers. The C’s vaunted defensive schemes, kryptonite in past seasons to both Lebron James and Dwyane Wade, have been completely dismantled thus far.

The majority of problems are coming off side pick and rolls featuring either Wade or James and a host of screeners (Illguaskas, Anthony, or Bosh). Over the years, one of the staples of the Celtics’ schemes has been to “Down” ballscreens on this area of the floor:

“Downing” a ball screen on the wing requires the defender (X1) to get up on the ball handler’s top shoulder and push him toward the baseline. The post guarding the screen follows suit by dropping underneath the screener and corralling the ball handler, preventing him from directly attacking the rim. The defense behind the play then pinches in preparation to either jam a roll, or stunt at a popping big man, before recovering to their own assignment. By keeping the ball on one side of the floor and out of the middle of lane, Boston limits their exposure to the two biggest threats facing any defense: ball reversal and middle penetration.

The problem in the Heat series has been that the C’s have been forced to defend side pick and rolls in a more traditional way. Instead of “Downing” them, Boston has been simply hedging hard and recovering:

Here Bosh sets the screen for Wade, who goes middle. The Celtics react by having Garnett hedge hard and Allen trail over the top in the space between the hedger

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Working/Not Working: Heat-Sixers (2), Bulls-Pacers (2)

Working/Not Working is a new daily HoopSpeak feature that will keep you updated on the major trends throughout the playoffs. Come back tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day!

MIAMI HEAT vs. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

Working: Heat: So what if he sometimes catches the ball as though he’s wearing shoes on his hands, Joel Anthony has been the most noticeable spark for the Heat in this series. This season, he was the anchor on the two best line-ups by adjusted plus minus, so it’s no surprise that his entrance into the game has twice inspired the Heat to crank up the defensive intensity and allowed the Heat to hurl the weight of their talent on the spindly shoulders of the young 76ers. And watch for all the little ways he improves the Heat’s offense by tipping out boards and igniting fastbreaks, like the one where LeBron crammed home a nine-ironed lob from Chalmers in the first half, through blocks and deflections. He’s +22 in the series to Ilgauskas’s +5, and you can expect to see more and more of his crab-mode karate robot defense as the Heat face increasingly dangerous point guards.

76ers: The Sixers did an excellent job of going through pre-game warmups and were cordial and charming with the media. Dressed in red white and blue, they stood with proper solemnity and respect during the National Anthem. They were exceptional in their jog back to the bench, and looked like a bunch of pro basketball players during the introductions–what muscles on that Iguodala character! After that, things sort of tumbled downhill into a ditch of flaming spears.

Not Working: Heat: Mike Bibby isn’t having the easiest time on offense versus Jrue Holiday’s length and athleticism. Chalmers has been even worse. If Miami continues to suffer

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Comparing the defensive philosophies of the Heat and Celtics

Special thanks to Coach Anthony Macri of HoopsWorld and Pro Training Center for his help on this post!

Everyone knows the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat have two of the best defenses in the NBA, giving up respective opponent FG%s of 43.5% and 43.1%. But these squads, who look destined to meet in a potentially epic second round series, achieve their impressive figures through fundamentally different defensive philosophies.

This is, in part, a reflection of two smart defensive schemes that take advantage of their personnel in order to best profit from strengths and mask weaknesses. The Heat’s defensive specialty is the ability of their athletic wings, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, to cause havoc and make up for the mistakes of teammates. The Celtics’s D, on the other hand, is designed to take advantage of Kevin Garnett’s incredible ability to organize and communicate with his teammates.

There are certainly overlaps in execution. Both teams give great effort, communicate well, are focused and energetic, and rely on prescient rotations to lock down opponents. However the are also essential differences between the Heat’s and Celtics’ defenses leads the Heat do whatever they can to pressure the ball, while the Celtics try to pressure the passing lanes through technically precise positioning. The Heat look to disrupt by getting eyeball-to-eyeball pressure and force defenses to read and react in the face of active, swarming limbs. Meanwhile, the Celtics want to prevent ball reversals by angling everything to the baseline and getting hands in passing lanes to stagnate the opposition’s offense.

Here are some of the ways these two philosophies manifest on the court:

Steals

Despite an aging roster, the Celtics have created 150 more turnovers and have stolen the ball 111 more times the Heat.** This is in part because in

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