How teams are managing weaknesses
The NBA playoffs are, more than anything else, an exercise in the management of liabilities. Team weaknesses are well established by this point in the season, and being able to focus on one opponent for an entire series allows clubs to hone strategies based on those corresponding weaknesses. As such, successful playoff teams aren’t just the ones that can best impose their will but also mitigate potential pitfalls. Every coach is searching for ways to make his team’s flaws more tenable.
With that in mind, let’s zoom in on one problem facing every remaining team while assessing the means through which those teams have — or could — address their faults. For this first installment, let’s address the four teams in action on Friday night. To see analysis on the weaknesses of the Thunder, Grizzlies, Pacers and Knicks, check out Part II.
San Antonio Spurs
I wouldn’t classify Tony Parker as a bad defender by any means, but the Warriors’ perimeter trio provides matchups so problematic that it leaves Parker with no preferable option to cover. If asked to guard Stephen Curry, Parker simply has to expend too much energy on the perimeter, and still risks surrendering a huge scoring night. In that matchup, Parker is made to fight through screen after screen while keeping track of Curry’s ever move, all of which creates a physically and mentally taxing challenge for a player whom the Spurs need to initiate their offense. Parker’s ability to attack off the dribble is the primary means for San Antonio’s shot creation, and the burden of guarding Curry requires that he be active and engaged for nearly every second of every possession. That’s tiring, to say the least, and among the primary motivations for having Parker defend a wing player instead.
But lining up Parker opposite Klay Thompson or Harrison Barnes invites its own challenges, as Golden State has emphasized attacking Parker whenever possible. The Warriors have several plays designed to free up the 6-foot-7 Thompson for catch-and-shoot jumpers. And Thompson’s size advantage enables him to rise and fire above the 6-2 Parker without issue:
Barnes is a less explosive scoring threat in a general sense, but even more of a physical mismatch for Parker. When the opportunity strikes, the Warriors simply clear out one side of the floor, set up the 6-8 Barnes on the block with Parker on his back and give the rookie room to back down a player who is six inches shorter and significantly weaker:
San Antonio has responded with double teams to help fend off Barnes, and Parker has tried to bother Barnes as he collects the ball to go up with his shot on the occasions when help isn’t available. But there’s no real answer for the problems that Golden State creates on the perimeter, even if matching up Parker on Barnes is decidedly the least risky of the three possibilities. I expect Parker will be challenged in these same ways from here on out while still seeing time on all three perimeter players as to at least give the Warriors a moving target.
Golden State Warriors
Interestingly, the Warriors have a parallel concern: With Curry playing heavy minutes and controlling the ball even more often since David Lee sustained a hip injury, Golden State has every motivation to shift Curry into low-risk, low-stress defensive matchups when possible. San Antonio provides a decent enough match in Danny Green, a spot-up shooter without the skill set to really attack Curry (and the Warriors’ help defense) off the dribble:
Still, Curry’s viability in defending Green may be overstated a bit by a string of misses on wide-open attempts. Green missed four of his six three-pointers in Game 2, but all six came on open looks — some without Curry or any other defender in the same county. That a 43 percent three-point shooter like Green missed so many wide-open shots is far more indicative of the Spurs’ bad luck than the Warriors’ good defense, particularly when Curry’s inattentive defense resulted in at least two of Green’s long-range opportunities. As the game goes on, Curry’s tracking on Green tends to get a little lazy, making this matchup a potential danger to the Warriors. But Green just isn’t as dynamic or as comfortable from the post as Thompson and Barnes are in their one-on-one work against Parker, leaving Green with fewer opportunities to exploit this mismatch.
San Antonio has also gifted Curry with the chance at times to guard Gary Neal, who is functionally similar to Green but isn’t as tall, isn’t as good a shooter and is prone to making horrible decisions. I suspect that matchup is more to Golden State coach Mark Jackson’s liking, and yet the Spurs — who seem resigned to running small lineups that all but require Neal’s services — have little choice but to concede it. (Things would be more difficult for Curry if Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had the option of playing Manu Ginobili for longer stretches, but that does not seem to be a realistic possibility at this point.)
The Bulls are a great defensive team empowered by a clever system, but injuries and offensive limitations have forced coach Tom Thibodeau to compromise his coverage ideals. That transforms the Bulls’ typical strength into an occasional liability. Though Chicago on the whole still works and executes tirelessly, Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, and Carlos Boozer — all three essential scorers — complicate the workings of Thibodeau’s defensive machine. Boozer’s faults may be the most egregious, as the big men operating in elite defenses are tasked with a never-ending string of complex responsibilities. Boozer is capable of some of those assignments (he’s relatively quick on his feet and better than advertised when defending the ball) but fails largely on his inconsistency as a help defender. As much as Joakim Noah has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, Boozer tends to take a few steps in the wrong direction and surrender easy baskets in the process. Here’s just one such example, with Boozer standing behind Chris Andersen as the Heat center dunks off a feed from Dwyane Wade:
The Heat are well aware of this and will look to attack the basket even more relentlessly because of it. Every drive and cut has a chance of throwing Boozer out of his zone or off of his assignment, just as it creates complications on the perimeter for players such as Robinson and Belinelli. Aside from the obvious size disadvantage that the 5-9 Robinson surrenders, the underlining problem in both his and Belinelli’s defensive games is that they often fall off the grid when floating between defenders. The fundamental principle of Chicago’s coverage is to infringe on the ball-handler’s immediate space, and because of that the Bulls slide an additional defender to the strong side of the floor while zoning up the weak side. This cuts off passing lanes and denies paths to the basket, often forcing the opponent to make difficult passes over the top of the defense.
That’s all well and good, until Robinson and Belinelli are forced to keep tabs against an active opponent on the weak side. Smart teams scramble their shooters and cutters to stress out Chicago’s defense, and it should go without saying at this point that Miami is an incredibly smart team. This Mario Chalmers three-pointer over a scrambling Robinson shows what tends to happen when a little off-ball movement on the weak side is choreographed to a drive from a scoring threat:
Belinelli (No. 8) and Robinson are somehow drawn into guarding the deep paint, as LeBron James’ drive, Udonis Haslem’s roll down the middle of the paint and Wade’s baseline cut create a cluttered mess of the Bulls’ coverage. If Chalmers had stayed in the corner, Robinson likely would have recovered to him in time to at least contest his shot. But because Chalmers slid above the break as the play progressed, he threw off Robinson and Belinelli and created an open passing angle for James.
All of this, unfortunately, is somewhat unavoidable. The defense would improve if Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich were healthy, but in their current form the Bulls are what they are — a good team stressed to its limits and clearly inferior to the Heat. Liability is a reality that Chicago has to live with.
On the other end of the spectrum, Miami is a team with too much offensive flexibility and too quick a team defense to have all that many liabilities. Things went about as well as they could in the Heat’s Game 2 performance, but the underlying dominance is simply to be expected with a team that employs a shocking amount of talent in such an intelligent manner. Miami’s offense is almost unguardable and its defense can choke the life out of the best offenses. The hype is earned, to say the least.
As a result, you aren’t likely to find many Heat players who can be consistently exploited, save for perhaps Norris Cole and Ray Allen. Cole was a problem for Miami in the regular season, but the second-year point guard has played very well in the playoffs. Part of that is due to some blistering shooting percentages that seem destined to regress to the mean, but Cole deserves credit for reading plays smartly, maximizing his opportunities and pressuring opposing ball-handlers. He may be a liability for the Heat in the later rounds yet, but for the moment he’s been far too good to be lumped into such a category.
Allen is a decent candidate only because of his defense, which Chicago looked to exploit as often as possible in Game 1. While bringing the ball up the court on one possession, Robinson visibly singled out the Belinelli/Allen matchup with a particular play call, which hung Allen out to dry with a double screen:
Various Bulls also attacked Allen off the dribble to varied effect. There’s little question that Allen’s defense is worthy of exploitation, but whether any opponent can consistently access that matchup is another matter entirely. By Game 2, the Heat had already adjusted; rather than leave Allen to his own devices as he trailed Belinelli on a cross-court cut, Shane Battier stepped in to trap Belinelli on the catch:
This is, quite simply, what the Heat do. They shift their coverage, they apply pressure and they find ways to make up for every potential disadvantage. Such maneuvering is only possible because of the speed across Miami’s roster and the wide defensive skill sets of players like Battier, James and Wade, and it’s for those very reasons that the Heat defense is almost impossible to manipulate and counter.