After Milwaukee took a two to nothing lead in the series against Toronto the general sense was doom for the Raptors. The Bucks haven’t lost three games in a row and haven’t lost a home game where they entered the fourth quarter with a lead all season. Marc Gasol wasn’t playing up to his standard and the Raptors bench unit were being outplayed. The odds seemed stacked against the Raptors. But sure enough the Bucks lost four games in a row for the first time all season and lost a home game where they entered the fourth quarter with a lead for the first time all season.
Were the Raptors that much better than the Bucks? I think not. We’re talking about a double overtime game three where the Bucks easily could’ve been up three games to nothing. A pivotal moment in that game was fourth quarter with about two minutes and thirty seconds left. George Hill was leading the break but multiple Raptors were waiting under the basket. Instead of backing out the ball and setting up a play Hill decided to rush the break and miss a contested paint attempt. The Raptors went on a five to nothing run over the next minute. The Bucks would send the game into overtime but the whole complexion of the game could’ve been changed with one play. Heck in game six when the Raptors took the lead with nine minutes and forty-five seconds left in the fourth quarter that was their first lead since 6-3 in the first quarter.
The Bucks took leads into the fourth quarter in both game five and six. This series in many ways could’ve went Milwaukee’s way. Unfortunately for the Bucks their late game half court offensive execution, tertiary playmaking, three point shooting and secondary help defense took a nosedive. Giannis became nullified in the fourth quarter with the Raptors playing more drop coverage on pick-and-rolls, collapsing middle with three defenders and sagging back on transition pushes taking away his driving angles and side steps. It’s tough to score when you aren’t a proficient three point, free throw or mid-range jump shooter. It becomes even more difficult to make precise decisions late in game on drive-and-kick opportunities, dump offs and timed passes to cutters. It also doesn’t help when one of your most important shooters, Nikola Mirotic, goes in the tank and shoots 19% from three and becomes unplayable. Shooting 31% from three as a team really makes it hard for Giannis to trust his kick out options, especially to a 17% from deep Bledsoe.
The Bucks ran a 5-out motion offense with shooting at every position surrounding Giannis all season. A lot of times when Giannis drove to the rim and helpside defense would rotate over that would trigger a weak side cut by the Bucks. It was a simple but effective offense since Giannis draws so much attention. The Raptors defense did a very good job snuffing out these actions late in the game. They closed space fast with sharp closeouts on skip passes and kick outs, were communicating on every ball screen, under control on recoveries and on a string with every rotation. Fourth quarter game five and six was some of the best defense I’ve seen the Raptors play all season. The Raptors walled up the paint and forced the Bucks out of their game plan. They were more capable of playing different styles of pick-and-roll coverage due to better two-way personnel in comparison to Milwaukee. The Raptors switched or contained on most ball screens and that versatility through the Bucks out of rhythm.
The Bucks pick-and-roll defense at the end of game five and six were pretty lazy. Several times did I see Milwaukee lazily give up the switch without fighting to stay attached. The Raptors would run multiple ball screens forcing the Bucks big men and weak side defense to cover extra ground and put them in a vulnerable spot. The Bucks communication would break down falling for hammer picks at crucial parts of the fourth quarter. The Raptors would setup Pascal Siakam as the screener in many ball screens situations trying to get players like Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova to switch on Kawhi. The Raptors ran variations of roll-and-replace and double ball screen actions quite often at the end of game five and six to move Milwaukee’s defenders into scramble mode. The Bucks had Giannis guard Marc Gasol and had Malcolm Brogdon/Khris Middleton guard Kawhi Leonard late in the game. Middleton struggled trying to guard Kawhi and multiple times gave up middle. Brogdon actually did a commendable job trying to guard him even though Kawhi could easily shoot over the top. Kawhi probably did the best job of his career trying to find shooters on his drive-and-kick chances during this series. Having a player that can score proficiently at all three levels of the game makes a huge difference come playoff time. The amount of attention that imposes on a defense changes the floor balance in favor of the offense.
It also helps when you get out of this world performances. I can analyze this series as much as I want but maybe it was as simple as this: Fred VanVleet went 2-11 from three games one through three and 14-17 from three games four through six. Maybe that’s all that needs to be said. If Mirotic got hot from three and VanVleet stayed cold then maybe this is a five game series. VanVleet wasn’t just a jump shooter though. He was aggressive on his takes, playmaked in a pinch and took care of the ball. Norman Powell really stepped up his game on both sides of the ball as well. He played better than Danny Green for most of this series. The bench for the Raptors straight up outplayed the Bucks bench games four through six.
The Bucks now go into this off-season with a lot of questions. Nikola Mirotic, Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon are all free agents. Are they going to re-sign Middleton to the max even though we just saw him flounder in the east finals? How much are the Bucks willing to spend on Brogdon? Will Lopez continue to take a discount? The Bucks need to get more versatile on defense while at the same time maintain quality spacing for Giannis and that could be an issue since their means of making upgrades could be limited. Acquiring an extra shot maker would be nice and Giannis evolving his game outside of the paint is the next step in his championship quest. The Raptors now have the pleasure of playing the Golden State Warriors in the Finals. The Warriors are the favorite even with Kevin Durant not playing. But without Kevin Durant the Raptors clearly have a better shot at winning the title. The Raptors counted on a supernatural performance by Fred VanVleet just to get them by the Bucks. They’re going to need that and then some to beat the Warriors. Getting OG Anunoby back healthy would be a plus for the Raptors. Win or lose the Raptors have done such a good job at rounding out their roster with late first round picks, second round picks and undrafted free agents. They made a risky move trading for Kawhi knowing damn well he might leave in a year. This might be the only time in franchise history where they will have a shot at winning a title. And heck who knows, maybe Kawhi doesn’t leave a well run organization playing in a weaker conference with a ravenous fan base and good coach. Just a thought.
~ I don’t know why but I find it funny that two of the most impactful players this postseason are Rodney Hood and George Hill. Both of whom made up the terrible supporting cast that Lebron had last NBA finals in Cleveland. Hill was dealing with back spasms for a chunk of the playoffs last season but playing with Lebron brings a degree of pressure that I don’t know if Hood and Hill were prepared for. Lebron is also his own offensive system and if you don’t fit within his construct then you may be dealing with a lot of DNP-coach’s decision. This postseason has been different though. With Enes Kanter dealing with a separated shoulder and Moe Harkless dealing with an ankle injury, Hood has stepped up for Portland. With Malcolm Brogdon being out with a foot injury, George Hill has stepped up for Milwaukee. Call it better health, opportunity, confidence, fit, role or whatever, but a couple buy-low trade chips are paying dividends for their respective teams.
~ Instead of picking Milwaukee outright over Boston, I decided to weasel out of a prediction and say whoever wins between Milwaukee versus Boston will win the east. I was favoring the Bucks but I was worried they were going to remain steadfast in their core principles from the regular season. I first had to see if they were willing to change their style of play during a series before I could confidently pick the Bucks. In my last article I wrote about how Boston was a bad matchup for Milwaukee and it certainly showed game one. The Bucks had to make the necessary adjustments if they wanted to turn around the series after a blow out game one loss. Mike Budenholzer has arguably been the best pickup this off-season and once again proved his worth by out coaching Brad Stevens with better coaching tactics. After game one, the Bucks started Nikola Mirotic in place of Sterling Brown. I’m a huge Sterling Brown fan but after game one it was clear that he isn’t a true shooting threat or a proficient enough driver which became a problem for the symmetry of the Bucks offense. Mirotic gave the Bucks more size and shooting which helped open up better driving angles for Giannis.
It felt like the Bucks used Giannis in more screening situations especially late in game. Whether that be Giannis the ball handler with a ball screen, Giannis setting the ball screen himself or Giannis setting off-ball cross screens, it felt like Milwaukee was forcing the Celtics to negotiate on as many screening scenarios that involve Giannis as possible. On the other hand it felt like Boston didn’t utilize the Irving/Horford pick-and-pop as much like in game one. A lot of that had to do with Milwaukee switching on the ball screen more often.
The Bucks switched on ball screens more often as compared to containing almost every ball screen in game one. The Bucks don’t necessarily have the personnel to switch on defense but there’s still benefit to switching even with less than personnel: it affords time on recovery’s, helps contain point of attack moves and baits the offense into head hunting. So instead of a smooth motion based offensive play for Boston you could get something like Kyrie dancing on Brook lopez. The Bucks would then collapse on Kyrie’s drive in the paint and force a kick out, either resetting the offense or giving up a three. Considering that Boston shot 30.7% from three this series, maybe giving them space on the perimeter isn’t that bad of an idea. Boston also doesn’t really have a true post threat either so the worry for a big on small cross match in the paint is lessen.
The Bucks bench just dominated the Celtics bench. I’ve already talked about George Hill but Pat Connaughton and Ersan Ilyasova were major contributors with Malcolm Brogdon giving them a boost last game. Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier were terrible and getting Marcus Smart back wasn’t helping with offensive production off the bench for Boston. No one on Boston could guard Giannis, too many times did Boston settle for jump shots and when they were down late in the game the offense felt too erratic with no purpose behind their actions. Kind of like how it’s been all season.
I still think Boston was a bad matchup for Milwaukee but it just so happens that the Bucks have a great coach of their own to make the correct adjustments after game one. Boston never rebounded. And you know what else helps? Having arguably the best player in the league, that’s what. With Malcolm Brogdon coming back, the Bucks having home court advantage throughout the playoffs, Giannis playing at the top of his game and a coach who is showing he is more than capable of making in-series adjustments bodes well for title consideration. I said before the playoffs started that who ever won the Boston-Milwaukee series will win the east and I’m obviously staying with that assertion. The reason why I didn’t pick Milwaukee out right to beat Boston was because of matchup but with the Bucks displaying that they aren’t afraid to switch up their style gives me the confidence in saying the Bucks are the favorite to win the NBA title. (Assuming Kevin Durant misses the Finals)
~ The Rockets better beat Golden State now that Kevin Durant is out for the rest of the series. If they don’t, that would be a colossal failure and a wasted opportunity. The Rockets moaned and wined about how they would’ve beat Golden State if it wasn’t for Chris Paul missing the last two games. There’s no excuses now.
~ The other two series are entering game sevens. My prediction before the second round started was Toronto over Philadelphia and Portland over Denver. I’ll stick with my picks even though my confidence level is waning after watching the games play out. I thought Toronto was going to beat the Sixers without much stress but clearly I overestimated Kyle Lowry and the Raptors supporting cast. I still think whoever wins will lose to Milwaukee anyway. Portland winning at Denver for game seven is the tougher proposition. Nikola Jokic has been one of the consistently great players throughout the postseason and Jamal Murray is asserting himself as the primary perimeter scoring threat. The Blazers on the other hand are dealing with injuries to key players and expecting Rodney Hood to stay hot is a difficult trust exercise. Both teams would have home court advantage versus Houston in the west finals even though the Rockets should be favored in both matchups.
In my latest podcast I talked about how the Celtics were a bad matchup for the Bucks. I also weaseled out of making a prediction since I was torn between both teams. All season I thought the Bucks were the team that had the best on-court fit in the eastern conference. A 5-out motion offense built around Giannis with shooting at every position. Brook Lopez became instrumental with his floor spacing ability and paint protection on defense. Even with having arguably the best player going in the league, the best record in the league, a top five offensive and defensive efficiency and a great coach, I wasn’t confident picking them over the Celtics. A Celtics team a lot of people wrote off before the playoffs started, and with some justification of course. They haven’t been on the same page all season, injuries have taken a toll and players haven’t progressed like they should’ve. I still like the Celtics because of how they are designed; a pick-and-roll mismatch problem at center, a slashing scoring three point shooting point guard with big switchable wings. That type of team design is built well for the postseason.
The regular season isn’t the playoffs. It isn’t about doing one thing great, it’s about versatility. Yes, the Bucks are a great defensive team but they were built primarily around a contain first pick-and-roll coverage. In the playoffs you need to be diverse enough to cover pick-and-roll’s every which way. Brook Lopez is great at one type of pick-and-roll coverage but can he hedge? Switch? And cover space in a timely matter? That was my issue going into this series. That was why I couldn’t in good faith pick the Bucks over the Celtics. Game one confirmed my suspicion and if the Bucks don’t make the necessary adjustments they will lose this series.
To start off the game the Celtics had Horford defend Giannis. They did the same thing to Ben Simmons last postseason. Although, the difference is the Celtics are playing tighter gap protection on Giannis’ drives.
In the first play you have Jayson Tatum leaving his man along the perimeter to shadow Giannis with the help of Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris hugging the lane line to shrink space. The next play you have Giannis in transition with Horford guarding him, Irving shadowing him, Morris in the middle of the paint and Tatum taking a dig at him from the corner. The Celtics were keying in on Giannis.
The Celtics would also put Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris on Giannis when Horford was on the bench. Horford actually did a good job cutting off driving angles and giving help defense time to crash down. Boston was ok taking an extra step in on Giannis while giving extra space to the Bucks shooters. Whether that’s because Malcolm Brogdon is hurt and they are giving his replacement Sterling Brown license to drive.
Or they don’t trust players like Pat Connaughton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova to torch them from three and attack closeouts.
The Celtics were switching on most ball screens and then would revert back to safer matchups on the weak side. The Bucks did headhunt on occasion looking for better cross matchups like Terry Rozier defending Giannis but rarely did they go to that. That should be something the Bucks try to exploit more in game two. Overall game one the Bucks stuck with what they knew best. They’re going to have to trust their shooters moving forward even if they miss open shots. Those shooters are paramount for Milwaukee’s floor balance. I would like to see DJ Wilson get more playing time. I think his length and athleticism at the forward/center position can help in terms of positional versatility. Until they get Brogdon back, they will be lacking another creator on offense and players like Pat Connaughton will have to play major minutes even though they’re struggling just to defend Boston’s point of attack offense. Brook Lopez will have to make open threes while Bledsoe will have to be better off the bounce if they want this to be a competitive series.
Rudy Gobert and Brook Lopez are great drop coverage defenders. During the regular season you can rely on that to win defensive player of the year and be apart of a top five defense. Come playoff time it’s about versatility and how well you can cover space.
The Bucks were containing most everything on ball screens and hardly stunted at the shooter left open. If Horford can make that above the break three consistently the Bucks will have to make adjustments asap. Lopez, Mirotic and Ilyasova can’t cover ground as fast as they need to versus the Celtics ball screen motion offense.
The Celtics were bending the Bucks defense all game and making them scramble on exploitable matchups.
That’s part of the reason why I think DJ Wilson should play more game two. He has the lateral movement to stay on switches and good change of direction ability to cover space in a timely matter. It doesn’t help when, at times, the Bucks were struggling to contain dribble penetration, were slow to matchup and had poor communication.
This was my overall fear coming into this series and it played out terribly for the Bucks.
The Bucks are obviously not out of it yet. They have to do a better job headhunting on offense, making open threes, stunting at the pick-and-pop shooter and covering space on defense. Hopefully it’s not a little too late when Malcolm Brogdon comes back, he could be the difference maker the Bucks need to help with continuity. Until then however Eric Bledsoe will have to step up his role on offense. I said whoever wins this series will win the eastern conference and I stand by that claim. Unless the Bucks make the correct adjustments, the Celtics could be that team.
Lately I’ve been working on my post-tournament prospect rankings which will be out very soon. After I post my big board I’ll start posting scouting reports. Since the NBA playoffs just began (Nets beat at Sixers, Magic beat at Raptors, GSW win vs Clippers, Spurs beat at Nuggets) I’ll post my scouting reports periodically. Interspersed with my scouting reports I’ll go over certain NBA matchups. But for me I don’t want to over analyze the NBA playoffs like some have. In the west Golden State is the clear favorite with home court advantage. The only team I could see give them trouble will be Houston. Houston has done a tremendous job of course correcting their season with mid-season acquisitions of Danuel House, Kenneth Faried, Austin Rivers and Iman Shumpert. An argument can be made that Houston is a deeper team now then they were last season. Last years version of Trevor Ariza was better than any player they’ve just acquired but the depth in comparison is better this year. The series versus Golden State last season was a 7-8 man rotation for the Rockets with Gerald Green getting major minutes. Now the Rockets can go 8-10 men deep with a better bench unit and possibly keep players fresher.
The next question becomes will the Golden State vs Houston series come to fruition? The major roadblock is of course Utah. Last postseason divisional round Houston beat Utah in five games. Houston really is a bad matchup for Rudy Gobert; make him play in space, on the perimeter and guard multiple ball screens per possession. The only thing that I could see derailing the Rockets would be Donovan Mitchell going off like he has over this past month. Over his last 15 games Mitchell is averaging 24.6 points, 4.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 46.6% from the field but most importantly 47.1% from three on 6.1 attempts per game. If Mitchell can continue his three point shooting barrage then that could affect the way Houston guards him on pick-and-roll. Maybe instead of switching they blitz him and as a result can bend the defense in favor of the Jazz. I could see the Jazz pulling off the upset if Gobert has a bigger presence in the paint offensively and Mitchell’s gravity changes the way Houston guards pick-and-rolls. I wouldn’t count on it though.
As far as the other series go in the west, I really could care less. Denver’s only chance at making noise in the playoffs was based off getting home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Now instead of playing the Clippers in the first round they get San Antonio which has been playing much better defense compared with their sluggish start to the season. The Spurs just beat the Nuggets game one. The Nuggets obviously aren’t out of it yet but the Spurs might have the upper hand due to the difference in experience and the lack of go-to scorers the Nuggets have. In the end does it really matter who wins this series? And it feels like everyone is picking Oklahoma City to beat Portland. The Thunder did beat the Trailblazers 4-0 during the season and without Jusuf Nurkic the series seems insurmountable for Portland to overcome. So naturally I’m picking Portland. They have home court advantage, Paul George is still dealing with shoulder issues and I trust Damian Lillard the most in this series. But again, neither team pose a serious threat to Golden State. Although, one of these four teams have to make the western conference finals. I’ll pick Portland for the sake that they’re underdogs against Oklahoma City and a nice redemption story after losing last postseason to the Pelicans.
In the East my pre-season pick was Boston then as the season went on I started to favor the Bucks. Out of all the eastern conference teams, Boston is best designed for the playoffs while Milwaukee has the best fit. Boston has a slashing, three point shooting scorer of a point guard, with a mismatch problem at center and a bunch of switchable big wings. Remind you of any team out west? That’s why I think they are best designed. Al Horford was and still is a mismatch problem for Joel Embiid and he will force Brook Lopez to exit the paint on defense. Kyrie is the do-it all offensive point guard and they have a slew of big wings that can switch, shoot threes and attack closeouts. Yes, Boston hasn’t been quite the team we expected them to be before the season began. Even though they might be well designed they haven’t been able to get on the same page all season. That is obviously my biggest reservation but then I remembered how everyone counted them out before last postseason began since Kyrie was hurt. They were one game away from making the finals. I kind of think when pushed against the wall this team finds ways to win. For Milwaukee it’s more simple. They’ve been the best team in the league all season due to fit. Giannis as the fulcrum of a 5-out motion offense that has shooting at every position. They have the pieces that fit the best out of all the possible eastern conference teams and they have home court advantage which helps too. I honestly can’t make my mind up. Boston or Milwaukee? The easy answer is Milwaukee since they have the best player in the conference and home court advantage. But I still like Horford being a mismatch problem to defend on pick-and-rolls. The injury bug is a problem for both teams as Marcus Smart is out for Boston and Malcolm Brogdon is out for Milwaukee.
The reason why I’m not talking Toronto and Philadelphia isn’t because they both lost their first series game. Overall I just think Kawhi has one foot out the door, OG Anunoby is hurt and Kyle Lowry’s playoff failures are still a thing. For the Sixers, Embiid is dealing with another knee issue, their bench stinks and the lack of shooting is a major flaw. I know that’s over simplifying both teams and if I’m wrong then I’m wrong but I think Boston and Milwaukee are best suited to win the east and give Golden State problems.
This postseason could be very interesting for this reason: I really think the two best teams in each conference will play each other in the divisional round and not the conference finals. Boston vs Milwaukee and Golden State vs Houston will both happen in the divisional round but both series could determine the actual winner of the conference. Or at least, that’s what I think.
On an incredible stretch run of basketball winning 20 of 21 games how did the Philadelphia 76ers lose in five to the undermanned Celtics? Even with Boston having home court advantage the Sixers seemed to be the favorites due to Bostons injury woes and momentum. The Sixers were trending towards a matchup with Lebron in the Eastern Conference finals. Philadelphia had two budding superstars and with the mid-season acquisitions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova a deeper team. So what went wrong? How did everything come crashing down on the hottest team in the league in a matter of five games? Was the winning streak a mirage? Was the matchup problem with the Celtics that egregious? Now with Lebron in the Western Conference there’s a chance this potential rematch can determine the outcome of the Eastern Conference. If these teams meet again during this years postseason both rosters will look different. I want to examine what struggles the Sixers went through and explore what triumphs did Boston achieve last Eastern Conference semifinals. I also want to analyze the effects of the new rosters and what impact they will have if a postseason rematch happens.
The Sixers were up four points with a minute left to go in overtime during game three and up four points with a minute and thirty-seven seconds left to go during game five. Now those leads aren’t insurmountable and one possession games can be fickle with terribly blown calls, a convenient bounce of the ball, head scratching turnovers and weirdly called fouls. But there’s no question the Sixers should’ve closed those games. They are the type of games you have to win. I’m about to probe this series and go over what Philadelphia did wrong but a couple minutes is the difference from changing the narrative completely. I’m not even going to include game two where the Sixers were up five points with five minutes and forty-eight seconds left to go in the game. At least that scenario is less deplorable for the Sixers.
The end of game three and game five bring me to arguably the most important factor of Philadelphia’s descent: finishing games and situational basketball. Before I go more in depth here’s a video I made breaking down some of the 76ers end of game mishaps:
This was on the coaches for not making the correct play call adjustments and the players for not being poised enough to make the correct reads. Game three was tied and with five seconds left to go JJ Reddick throws a bad pass for a turnover transitioning Boston into an easy fast break bucket. Apparently the play the Sixers were running called for Simmons to get the pass from Reddick off an Embiid screen. The problem was Simmons never turned his head around but Reddick threw it anyways. Some might chalk that up to a miscommunication but Reddick has to identify the action more properly and hold onto the ball and adapt accordingly. Bottom line is if Simmons isn’t looking don’t pass the ball even if the play calls for it. Reddick should’ve known better.
Luckily Marco Belinelli made a last second buzzer beater to send the game into overtime. Ben Simmons gets an offensive rebound with seventeen seconds left in overtime and the Sixers were up one. You might be thinking to yourself that Simmons pulled the ball back out, got fouled and made the game a three point difference. Makes sense, right? If that’s what you’re thinking than you’d be wrong since Simmons immediately shot the ball, Boston got the rebound and called a timeout. The Celtics ended up running a simple but clever play knowing that the Sixers were switching most everything off-ball. During the play Embiid gets switched out onto Jaylen Brown off a Horford pindown and Tatum cross screen, clearing out the paint and lobbing an overhead entry pass to Horford for the easy two. The Celtics were dictating the terms of the game. But don’t worry though. The Sixers still have five seconds left to give themselves a solid chance at winning. Surely they can get a good shot off? Well, not quite. Simmons doesn’t throw a clean inbound pass to Embiid and Horford picks the ball off for the win. Oh good grief.
Most of game three errors can be attributed to unforced turnovers and not knowing what the situation called for. Game five on the other hand had a lot to do with basic fundamental missteps. With a minute twenty-seven left to go in the game five Dario Saric and Ben Simmons miscommunicated on a pick-and-roll coverage leaving Horford open for a lob pass. Next Boston possession Simmons gets beat at the point of attack by Jayson Tatum. Tatum missed the layup attempt but both Saric and Simmons remained flat footed while Marcus Smart explodes for the easy put back. Next Sixers possession Saric commits an unforced turnover then the next Celtics possession Simmons gets beat backdoor for a Tatum layup. That was the go-ahead bucket and the Celtics never looked back. Simmons was terrible at defense with two minutes left to go in the game: not boxing out, floating off-ball, not staying balanced containing dribble penetration, biting on fakes in the paint and overall looking lost on defense. Simmons was bad at defense but this was a team effort at being unclutch. The Sixers were -21.2 points per 100 possessions throughout the playoffs during games that had five minutes left to go and the score being within five points.
The end of game performance and unforced turnovers were frustrating but the rate at which they occurred were just mind boggling. You can somewhat blame the Sixers youth for their blunders but they did lead the league during the regular season with 16.5 turnovers per game so clearly this was a major problem all year. Also the Celtics were a young team too being lead by a rookie in Jayson Tatum. I don’t know how legit of an excuse being young is then. Maybe the biggest culprit of error for Philadelphia was coaching and game strategy. The Sixers run a motion styled offense with a bunch of ball reversals, screen aways, cut throughs, fills, curl cuts, long curls, backdoors, ball movement and player movement. They were second in the NBA with an assist percentage of 66.3% and a pace of 102.2 possessions per 100 possessions which ranked fourth. The Sixers offense was about bending the defense to find open shooters and pushing tempo to get into their early offense. After the mid-season acquisitions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova the Sixers had an offensive rating of 111.5 offense which was fifth best during that stretch. Combine that to their already stout defense lead by defensive anchor Joel Embiid and the Sixers ended up winning the final twenty-two of twenty-seven games. With a team humming on all cylinders how did the coaching and strategy breakdown?
Boston presented Philadelphia with a few matchup problems. For starters Boston singled Joel Embiid in the post and made Philadelphia’s shooters into drivers. Embiid normally good in the paint sported a .97 points per possession from the post during the regular season but a .81 points per possession from the post in the playoffs. If Embiid is failing in the post then why would anyone leave their shooters? The only time I noticed the Celtics doubling Embiid was when he had great position around the restricted area. The Celtics were content on letting Horford or Baynes guard Embiid one-on-one in the post and close off air space for the Sixers shooters. The Celtics would lock-and-trail shooters on off-ball movement and would switch on-ball depending on personal reads. Boston was forcing the Sixers shooters to create separation on their own.
The Sixers had a solid group of shooters during the regular season making 36.9% of threes which was tied for eighth best. However outside of Dario Saric and JJ Reddick no one was able to attack closeouts proficiently. Even when the Sixers shooters got solid looks from three they still missed some with Belinelli shooting 31%, Covington shooting 25%, Ilyasova shooting 21% and Philadelphia shooting 31% from three as a team during the Celtics series. Add that to their inability attacking closeouts and that’s a recipe for complications. One way the Sixers combated this issue was dribble pitches and dribble handoffs with Embiid and Reddick as a two man game from the wings. Embiid would stretch out the Celtics defense bringing Horford or Baynes out of the paint. Embiid is also a brilliant passer and Reddick has terrific foot work off screens using variations of stunts, fakes and set ups to create enough daylight for wider passing angles. The Sixers also maintained off-ball actions trying to free their shooters through pindowns, flares, staggers, hammer passes and rescreens. Essentially doing what they know how to do: motion offense.
Philadelphia was having trouble getting their shooters space so they ramped up motion based plays. The problem was that Boston’s defense was built to switch off-ball so no matter what action you ran it could still be cut off, in particular when you’re using players who can’t create off a live dribble. For the most part the Sixers had spot-up shooters who couldn’t off-dribble pull up or get to the rim. If that was the case then why not use more spread based pick-and-roll offense? During the regular season Philadelphia was last place in possessions when using the roll-man out of pick-and-roll and second last when going with pick-and-roll ball-handler. This just highlights how much the Sixers used pick-and-rolls to stabilize their offense even though it’s a very effective play especially when using the roll-man.
Throughout the series with Boston every time the Sixers used a high side pick-and-roll with Simmons/Embiid surrounded by shooters Boston had their help side defense tagging Embiid on his dive leaving a shooter wide open. When the Sixers ran simple spread pick-and-roll either the dive-man got an easy layup attempt, a shooter was left open or the ball handler had more space to contort the drive. The Celtics couldn’t just switch their way out of this action and had to scramble help defense. As a result the Sixers shooters had more space to operate. But for some reason the Sixers rarely went to it and stuck by with motion. The few times they did go to pick-and-roll the outcome would typically be positive. I found that to be a huge adjustment mistake by the Sixers coaching staff.
The Sixers coaching staff ended up making a lineup adjustment starting TJ Mcconnell game four over the struggling Robert Covington which worked out well but it didn’t fix the root of the problem. Mcconnell has dribble drive moves that can collapse a defense and create movement for his shooters but it was only a band-aid. It was a temporary fix because the court was still shrinking for the Sixers even though they were able to manipulate driving lanes better. It isn’t an advantageous situation when you have Embiid in the post with two non-shooters on the perimeter. Sometimes the Sixers off-ball cutters would run into Embiid when he was working the post. Simmons was doing Embiid no favors either by being passive on his drives and routinely picking up his dribble resetting the offense. I don’t know if it was because Simmons isn’t confident at the free throw line but time and time again Simmons misread driving angles and had poor body control on his floaters. Simmons shot 28.6% on paint attempts not including restricted area shots. The Celtics did put Marcus Morris and Al Horford on Simmons sagging off him at times helping maintain dribble penetration but there were still opportunities that Simmons didn’t leverage.
Defensively for Philadelphia the Celtics would occasionally space out Embiid with Aaron Baynes in the corner or Al Horford on a high side pick-and-pop. Taking Embiid out of the post to leave the rim unprotected left the Sixers back end more vulnerable. Early in the series Embiid was late on his rotations when recovering drop coverage versus an Al Horford pick-and-pop. Embiid does a solid job on switches but can struggle to cover space in a hurry due to lack of acceleration and change-of-direction. The adjustment was to put Embiid on Marcus Morris more since Morris isn’t involved in pick-and-roll situations as much. But again this is only a band-aid since it doesn’t fix how porous the paint is without Embiid protecting it.
The Sixers were not scrambling well on the Celtics side-to-side swings, dribble penetration and weak side shooters. When you have Embiid recovering late and perimeter defenders like JJ Reddick getting beat by first step attacks it’s an uphill battle for the defense to overcome. Robert Covington was one of the better defenders in the league sporting the third best defensive real plus/minus at +4.24 during the season. Surly he was able to stifle first step moves or setup dribble drives? Yet again even he was having trouble containing dribble drives getting beat by pivots, rip-thrus and exhibiting poor balance. Covington looked like a deer lost in headlights this series. At times he was unplayable and looked like the undrafted player he is. The Celtics would also headhunt Marco Belinelli, JJ Reddick and TJ Mcconnell since they literally couldn’t guard anyone. The Celtics had a few players who were tough to guard out of the triple threat stance and with no one protecting the glass the Celtics would routinely attack Reddick with Brown or Belinelli with Tatum; the Celtics didn’t have to worry about weak side block attempts. Overall the Sixers didn’t have the foot speed to bottle up the Celtics perimeter scorers.
This series was combination bad matchup and not so stellar coaching. Maybe if the Sixers had more versatile players the coaching staff would’ve engaged the Celtics with different tactics. And again maybe I’m reading too much into it because a couple minutes is the difference from the series being turned upside down. Or it could just be that the inherent flaws the Sixers possess lead them to blunder play after play late in the game. Are the Sixers doomed to repeat the issues of the 2018 playoffs in 2019?
One of the Sixers biggest needs this off-season was a perimeter scorer. The Sixers three best scorers are Embiid who isn’t efficient from three and is post heavy, Reddick who is a liability on defense and Simmons who can’t shoot. The Sixers wanted to go after Paul George, Lebron James and Kawhi Leonard but struck out on all three. This remains a huge issue going forward as late game scoring devolves into one-on-one basketball quite often. Philadelphia needs a three level perimeter scorer if they want a better chance at beating Boston. The Sixers also lost Belinelli and Ilyasova this off-season and replaced their shooting with Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet and to a certain extent Furkan Korkmaz. Muscala is a lesser known name coming from Atlanta but is a career 37.8% three point shooter. Shamet is a rookie but shot 44% from three his last two years of college. Korkmaz dealt with injuries during his rookie year last season but deserves a crack at the rotation since he’s been able to showcase his scoring ability during the summer league and preseason. There’s a lot of unpredictability in trusting three obscure players but I actually like all three to fill the void as shooters. Being able to defend though is a different discussion.
To fill in the gaps defensively for the Sixers they went out and drafted Zhaire Smith and traded for Wilson Chandler. Both players have the size and athleticism to be apart of a switching defense, something that was lacking versus the Celtics. Chandler seems to be dealing with a hamstring injury, it doesn’t appear to be too serious but hamstring injuries can never be taken too lightly. Smith on the other hand could be out for the season with a broken foot. Even if he comes back late in the year he’s still starting from behind. Smith has the defensive acumen the Sixers crave but is super raw offensively. Taking away that season of development might mean that Smith will be unplayable during the playoffs. Zhaire Smith being hurt was a big loss for the Sixers hopes at beating Boston.
Internal development will also be key for the Sixers battle against Boston. Simmons needs to shoot better from the free throw line and mid-range. The media is clamoring for Simmons to start shooting threes more but I just want him to step into a mid-range pull-up. Just that alone will affect the defensive alignment for the opposing team. Embiid needs to improve his outside jump shot but that’s more of a luxury at this point. And finally the man of mystery Markelle Fultz needs to mentally be over his shoulder injury. If Fultz can play like the draft hype imagined then he could be the x-factor the Sixers need. He can create separation on his own, initiate offense for others, take it to the rim with ease and force pressure on Boston’s defenders. His release on his three point shot is still low but confidence might be the objective to forge in this scenario.
There really isn’t much to say about Boston’s new roster since health is their main goal. The Celtics are the ones with the vantage point over the Sixers in terms of perimeter defenders and three level scorers. The Celtics are built perfectly for the modern day NBA but staying healthy is an ambiguous aspiration. Getting Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back and maintaining their well-being might determine a possible rematch against the Sixers. The Celtics biggest roster move this off-season was drafting Robert Williams who might be a couple years away but has the potential for an immediate role as a rotational big-man. The Sixers lost to the Celtics without Hayward, Irving and Williams last postseason. After Philadelphia made marginal moves to upgrade their roster this off-season are they ready to win a potential rematch?
Well it could take Boston a few months to reintegrate Irving and Hayward plus Philadelphia could end up using more pick-and-rolls with Markelle Fultz getting additional playing time. So there’s a chance Philadelphia plays better than Boston in the early months but it’s obviously how you play during the postseason that matters most. As of now it doesn’t look good for Philly if a postseason rematch happens. Losing Zhaire Smith was a big blow and banking on internal growth is a fortuitous ask for the Sixers. The regular season does tend to be volatile with injuries, trades and breakout stars. Six months from now is a long ways away and a lot could happen between then. The Bucks offense looks really good during the preseason and the Raptors are stacked. By no means is a Sixers/Celtics rematch in the works but as a basketball fan it sure be enjoyable to watch.
I’m either going to do a write up or podcast previewing both conference finals but I wanted to briefly break down the sequence of events that lead to Boston beating Philadelphia in five:
Personally, I would’ve called an offensive foul on Dario Saric but I was fine with the no call. Even though Marcus Smart seems like a mismatch in the post for the 6’10 Saric Smart keeps a strong base, doesn’t bite on the rip-thru and frustrates Saric into a forced back down. That’s not quite the efficient look I would’ve ran with 43 seconds left. Horford gets the loose ball, starts a break and wisely kicks it out to Terry Rozier.
Brad Stevens doesn’t call a time out to draw up a play and instead trusts his players during crunch time. Rozier and Horford proceed to set up a side pick-and-roll.
JJ Reddick and Joel Embiid do what most teams run when covering side pick-and-rolls and “ICE” the action; using the sideline/baseline as an extra defender. And while Saric is technically in solid position I personally would’ve been more aggressive on the coverage. Instead of zoning up between Horford and Smart I would’ve denied one pass away and forced Rozier to lob it over to Marcus Smart above the break. Smart is a worse three point shooter than Horford and the extra time for the pass to make its way over to Smart increases recovery time on rotations.
But with Saric zoning up Rozier delivers a bounce pass to Horford starting a sequence that lead to the go-ahead bucket. You can already see Jayson Tatum start his move to the basket with Ben Simmons ball watching.
Smart play by the rookie. Tatum anticipated the ball reversal and with Ben Simmons ball watching Tatum backdoors to the basket.
TJ Mcconnell did the best job he could on the help but the play was unsalvageable. The next play was a missed layup than turnover by Joel Embiid. There might have been a foul on Embiid’s release by Aron Baynes but that’s a tough call to make at the juncture of the game.
I really liked this play because it felt like a microcosm of the series: even though the Sixers had more talent, when it came time to close the game the Sixers either committed unnecessary fouls, terrible turnovers or boneheaded mistakes. Overall this was a bad matchup for the Sixers. Having Horford as Ben Simmons kryptonite, length/athleticism on the perimeter minimizing space for the shooters and Embiid having his troubles in the post knocked Philadelphia out of their rhythm.
The Sixers still have a bright future and I’ll eventually do a write up about their possibilities this off-season. For now….Cleveland vs Boston.
Why did the Cavs play so much better the last three games? The biggest reason, for me, is their pick-and-roll coverage. I’ve made it known countless times that I’m not the biggest fan of the Cavs defense; in particular their pick-and-roll defense. I don’t think the Cavs offense ever was a real issue. During the five game series with the Warriors the Cavs scored 111 points per 100 possessions and gave up 117 points per 100 possessions. That’s really good offense and god awful defense.
For the first two to three games of the NBA finals the Cavs used a conservative approach when it came to guarding screen-and-rolls. The Cavs either showed, hedged or sagged back giving the Warriors tons of space to attack vulnerable gaps in the defense. The last two games however the Cavs took a trap and recover approach and left the non-shooter open. For all the firepower the Warriors boast about, typically they have two non-shooters on the floor at all time; Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia, David West, Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston.
This play is a great example of why the Cavs made the adjustment they did. It starts off with a high screen-and-roll with Curry and Zaza.
Instead of “downing” the screen, which they did sometimes in games one and two, they trap Curry and force him to the sidelines. Lebron rotates onto Zaza leaving Draymond Green open.
Lebron doesn’t even think about making that rotation and leaves Green wide open for three, which he misses the shot. Since there are multiple non-shooters on the floor at all time for the Warriors, the Cavs decide its better to trap the ballhandler, rotate a man over help-side and leave the non-shooter open from the perimeter. Iggy and Green were the ones who had a bunch of uncontested threes; they went 4 of 12 from three combined.
This time its a dribble hand-off between Zaza and Durant.
Tristan Thompson and Richard Jefferson trap Durant and Zaza is left open for the dive. Durant tries a pocket pass but ends up becoming a turnover and fastbreak for the Cavs. Trapping Duarnt and Curry puts a lot of pressure on them since the Cavs push them towards the sideline which ends up becoming a third defender.
The Cavs would even trap the ballhandler even when the screen setter is Durant.
As you can see here Durant was left wide open. He attacked a Tristan Thompson close out and scored easily. The Warriors started to take advantage of the Cavs aggressiveness and put shooters as the screen setters while the non-shooter’s cut weak side for something backdoor.
The Cavs ended up making the right adjustment; shrink the court, take the ball out of Durant and Curry’s hands and make Iggy/Green make threes. It makes you wonder why the Cavs didn’t play this way from the start?
Even though the Cavs made the correct adjustment on the pick-and-roll coverage, at the end of the day, their undoing was poor communication. It was a problem all season, all playoffs and all finals.
Klay Thompson uses a Draymond Green cross screen to cut baseline.
The communication starts off well with Kevin Love pointing out the action.
Klay keeps running baseline and is about to curl off another cross screen. I don’t know what was communicated between Lebron and JR Smith but the proper call should’ve been for Lebron to switch onto Klay while JR Smith takes Durant.
Both JR Smith and Lebron take Klay and no one takes Durant, wide open under the basket. Either they didn’t negotiate the screen properly or JR Smith got confused over the call.
The next play….
It was a simple fastbreak and no one picked up Iggy, another miscommunication.
The Cavs can make all the great defensive adjustments they want but if they can’t talk out offensive actions that’s a problem that has to be addressed during training camp.
Where do the Cavs go from here?
I really think if the Cavs would’ve started the series covering the screen-and-rolls with a “trap and recover” style defense then this series had a chance to go seven games. Lebron James is just an unstoppable force on offense and Kyrie is the best finisher in the game, add that to an improved defensive scheme and a seven game series isn’t far fetched.
With that said, their defense was still trash. No matter what adjustments the Cavs made they were losing regardless. I just stated the problems with their communication and Lebron James is now asked to guard the second best player in the world, after the past two years of covering Harrison Barnes.
Lebron could just sag off Barnes and hug the paint; he would become another help defender and play the passing lanes. This in return slowed down the game, shorten the possessions and played into the Cavs style. Obviously, Barnes didn’t take advantage.
The Cavs need another perimeter defender to take the pressure off Lebron; PJ Tucker, Thabo Sefolosha, CJ Miles, Tony Allen and Vince Carter are nice options within their spending limits.
There has also been nosie about trading Kevin Love for Paul George or Carmelo Anthony. I think Love gets a bad wrap. He’s a perfect fit next to Lebron; he is a non-ISO player who can shoot threes. He also played the best defense of his career this year.
I don’t know if Love for George will happen but Love for Melo could. If a Love for Melo trade happens then the Cavs need another “Big.” Amir Johnson, Nene, Zach Randolph, Ersan Ilyasova, Omri Casspi, Dante Cunningham and Donatas Motiejunas are great options within their spending limits. Even if the Cavs don’t trade Love, they should still get another “Big.”
Bottom line is the Cavs need another wing and “Big.” Most importantly, they have to improve their defense. No team since the 2001 Lakers has won a title without a top 10 defense. No exceptions.
I’ve been hypercritical of the Cavs defense all year; their rotations, communication and lack of effort has been a consistent problem. No team has won a NBA finals with a defensive efficiency outside of the top ten since the 2001 Lakers. Even the Cavs last year and the Mavs in 2011 had top ten defenses. The 2017 Cavs have the 22nd ranked defense…gulp.
Game one and Game two of the 2017 NBA finals has been no different defensively for the Cavs. Now, playing the Warriors doesn’t make things on defense any easier either but here are four plays that are indicative of the Cavs defensive woes:
This is a baseline out-of-bounds play. The Cavs have been losing track of their player assignments on out-of-bounds and after-time-out plays all series long. Notice that Lebron has his hands on his hips.
Kyle Korver loses track of Klay Thompson and gets beat backdoor. Lebron should be the next man in line to try to wall off the cut. Again, notice where Lebron has his hands.
Curry makes a nice pass to the cutting Thompson. Not only has Lebron taken just one hand off his hip but he hasn’t even taken a step in the right direction yet.
Way too easy. Even though Korver is the one at fault for the defensive breakdown, there was absolutely no help defense. Lebron should’ve been there to help but instead had his hands on his hips for most of the play. Poor coverage on these BLOB and ATO plays have to stop if the Cavs want to slow down the Warriors.
The next play is a simple spread pick-and-roll.
David West sets a good screen on Lebron James; Lebron gets dislodged from his cover and chases to recover. Kevin Love should be there to cut off Durants air space until Lebron returns.
Look at how much space Kevin Love gives Kevin Durant. Does Love think Durant is Harrison Barnes? This is a simple play but terrible judgment. If the coverage calls for a double team or trap then Love should be up more, especially since the screener was David West and he’s not a threat from three, so Love can smother Durant until Lebron gets back, then Love can recover onto West. If the coverage is to “down” the pick-and-roll, well, thats just a bad coverage to play.
This next play is another spread high-pick-and-roll.
Durant and Thompson are in the corners, Green is lingering right low-block and Andre Iguodala sets a screen for Curry.
It looks like the pick-and-roll coverage is to corral the ball handler. But thats a tough call to make if your perimeter defenders stick to the outside shooters. Iggy does a nice job of timing his roll.
Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are still containing Curry on the drive. Lebron and Richard Jefferson are still sticking on the outside shooters. Tristan Thompson is still connected to Green lingering baseline. And no one is accounting for Iggy.
Curry makes a laser pass to Iggy for an easy dunk. This play is a problem for a lot of teams. Do you stick to the outside shooters or do you help on the dive? For the Cavs, this play is really a two-fold problem: coverage and personal. The coverage should really be for Love to show or hedge on the pick-and-roll so he delays Currys drive and then Kyrie has more time to recover onto Curry while Love can make a better attempt to wall off Iggy’s dive. However, Love isn’t the most versatile of defenders so asking him to cover a bunch of ground is a lot for him. I don’t know if problems like these are fixable.
This last play is another backdoor.
Green has the ball up top, Curry and Durant are at the left wing while Iggy and Thompson are at the right wing.
Curry sets up a down screen on Lebron.
Lebron braces himself for the play on the screen while Durant rejects the screen and cuts backdoor.
Love should be the next rotation for help but hasn’t taken his eye off Green the whole play.
Green makes another top notch pass to Durant for the easy bucket. Love should’ve been there to wall off Durant but this play isn’t his fault. Lebron should’ve read Durant’s use of the screen better and he should’ve communicated right away to weak side for help.
I picked these four plays because they’re not overly complex; in fact they’re simple. But they do highlight the fundamental problems the Cavs have while guarding the Warriors.
I think Game three the Cavs defense will be better; home crowd, energy, focus. I think they sure up these simple mistakes. Overall, I don’t see the Cavs making a comeback. The Cavs defensive problems are too deep for them to win 4 out of 5. They should get at least one game….right?
The first game of the the NBA Finals is finally in the books. The game can be summed up in four words: pace, Curry, Durant and turnovers.
Pace because Cleveland won last years finals at a rate of 95 possessions per game; the fewer the better. Game one was at 102 possessions; advantage Warriors.
Curry because when Cleveland put him in pick-and-roll situations last Finals the Cavs took advantage of the switches. Game one had Curry showing instead of switching; it slowed down dribble penetration and gave the Warriors time to recover. Curry on offense was amazing too, breaking down the defense with his handle and creating gravity with his shot.
Durant because he was unguardable. The Cavs had a tough time guarding him; do they trap? Do they switch? Do they bust out Ty Lue’s secret defense he’s been saving for the playoffs? Whatever they do they better think of something quick.
Turnovers because it was a 20 to 4 difference; plain and simple. If the Cavs can’t take care of the ball than this series is over in a hurry.
My favorite play of the game came in the fourth quarter with about 11 minutes left to go. The Warriors were up 21. It’s a play that had a few options depending on what the defense did. In this instance Klay Thompson was used more like a diversion cutting off two baseline screens and curling to the three point line. Normally this play can yield a wide open three to Klay but this time it was as a misdirection.
It starts off as a sideline out-of-bounds play with Ian Clark passing it in to Andre Iguodala. Draymond Green sets a cross screen for Klay Thompson in the right corner.
The defense stays sound and Deron Williams is attached to Thompson’s hip.
David West sets a wide-down screen for Thompson. Thompson curls to the three point line.
Here is where the option comes to play. Depending on how the defense reacts, Iggy would either pass it to Klay or enter it in the post for West.
Just like my last play breakdown, the Cavs miscommunicate on defense. This time between Deron Williams and Richard Jefferson. West slips the screen and Iggy makes a nice pass to a wide open West.
Since there was a miscommunication between Jefferson and Williams Lebron makes the right rotation and steps in front of West’s path.
As soon as Lebron rotated over to West, Shumpert needed to rotate to Green in the corner then Jefferson would find his way to Clark at the Right Wing. However, Shumpert didn’t make the proper read and Green makes a well timed cut to the basket.
West makes a great pass to the cutting Green. Jefferson does an admirable job of trying to wall off Green.
In the end Jefferson was late and ends up putting Green on the free throw line. Even though this play doesn’t result in a direct bucket, the passing and play construction highlights the action of a fast paced offense with multiple layers. Not only is ball movement and player movement a staple of the Warriors offense, it’s also just enjoyable to watch.
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