Lessons Learned from the Playoffs (Conference Finals)

I think it’s fitting that Miami and San Antonio both made it to the Finals because, in my opinion, those two teams have played the best team ball, on both ends of the floor, than anyone else in the league for most of the season. Oklahoma, when healthy, had more talent than San Antonio but they didn’t play as a team nearly as well as the Spurs. Memphis and Indiana certainly played great team defense and were the best in the league, in that department, but neither team was impressive on the other end of the floor.

Both the Spurs and Heat can run an offense that will make even the grumpiest basketball purist smile, and both teams have sophisticated defenses that can frustrate an opponent.

But before we get to the Finals, let’s look back at the Conference Finals and see what lessons were learned (or had confirmed) by what we saw from those games. Quite frankly, a lot of the lessons were carry overs from round two, like how size still matters (the ONLY reason Indiana pushed Miami to seven games was because they were the bigger team) and defense is paramount to being a true contender. But there a couple I haven’t discussed yet.


This isn’t anything revolutionary, but I think people often forget this during the regular season. Guys like Jamal Crawford and Josh Smith J.R. Smith are explosive offensive players, but their lack of defense makes them more of a liability once the playoffs start and can kill their team the deeper they go. So while the two players finished one and two in 6th Man of the Year voting, and were keys to their teams’ regular season success, if a team is truly interested in building a contender, maybe those aren’t the kind of players you want.

It’s not just poor defensive players that will hurt their team, it’s poor offensive players, too.


Take, for example, the Spurs-Grizzlies series. San Antonio had two strategies going in. They were going to go at Zach Randolph‘s defense on the offense end, making him defend their pick and roll, something he’s simply not good at. And on the defensive end, they crowded the paint and swarmed Randolph in the post (taking advantage of his poor passing from the post) and made Memphis’ perimeter players beat them from the outside. They basically dared Tony Allen, a poor offensive player, to score on them.

During the regular season, Allen shot 12% from 3-point range (no, that’s not a typo), and was below average shooting everywhere, including at the rim. The league average shooting from 3-9 feet was 38%. Allen shot 28% from that range.

Allen went 2-11 in game 2 and 2-9 in game 4, and went 0-1 from three point range for the entire series.

Getting back to Zach Randolph, during the regular season, he averaged 1.4 assists per game despite the highest Usage Rate on the team. There 30 players in the league, this past regular season, that were at  least 6’9, played at least 30 mpg and scored at least 12 ppg. Zach Randolph was 26th among them in assists per game.

I’d say they knew that doubling Randolph wouldn’t hurt them.

During the regular season, Chris Bosh was the only Miami big man to average, at least, 20 mpg. He played center, despite his preference not to, and his outside shooting helped space the floor for the Heat’s small ball. But he’s a finesse big man who doesn’t like, and isn’t good at, banging in the paint, and since he left Toronto, his rebounding numbers have declined from 10.8 rpg in his last year in Toronto, to 6.8 rpg this past season. That’s almost getting down to Bargnani-bad.


And Indiana took advantage of Bosh’s lack of rebounding, killing Miami on the boards. I can’t count the number of times the commentators said the Pacer’s best offense was just throwing the ball up at the rim and having Indiana’s big men to go after the offensive rebound. In the seven game series, Indiana grabbed a total of 90 rebounds which, per game, is what the averaged when they finished first, in that department, during the regular season.

Against Indiana, Bosh averaged 4.3 rebounds per game. Normally, it’s hard to make any judgements about numbers like this with such a limited sample size, but considering how much Miami’s lack of rebounding hurt them, Bosh needed to step up and didn’t.


I spoke about this on PhDSteve’s podcast last week, but Tony Parker might be the most underrated player in the last decade. He’s been the Spurs leading scorer four of the last five years. In the four years he’s led the team in scoring, the team has an average winning percentage of .717. That’s an average of 59 wins, for an 82 game season (last year they only played 66 games). And the team reached the Conference Finals twice and the Finals once, during the years he lead the team in scoring.

He’s been on three All NBA teams, five All Star teams and has a Finals MVP.


This past season, he was 9th in the league in scoring, 6th in assists per game, had the 17th highest field goal percentage, which was the best among all guards, and for those that care about this, had the 10th highest PER.

Yet the Spurs have rarely been called Tony Parker‘s team, and when bringing up the top players in the league, his name is rarely mentioned.

He absolutely eviscerated the leagues best defense and made the league’s best perimeter defender look pedestrian, in the series against Memphis.

While I am a massive Tim Duncan fan, and think he deserves all the accolades he gets (and even deserves more), if the Spurs win the Championship this year, it will be because of Tony Parker, who will become one of only ten players in NBA history to win the Finals MVP more than once. Just to give you an idea of the company he would be in, that’s Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, TIm Duncan, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Willis Reed. Reed is probably the worst player in that list, and he finished 30th in Bill Simmons’ All Time Player Ranking in his Big Book of Basketball.


Miami vs San Antonio: San Antonio in 6

In the last series, I underrated Miami’s difficulty playing against bigger teams, and overrated how much Memphis’ defense would hurt San Antonio. Miami is a great team with the best player in the game, but they simply have more weaknesses than San Antonio. They struggle against bigger team, of which San Antonio is one. They defense is predicated on making their opponent panic and make mistakes, something the Spurs rarely do.  And the only player with a chance at slowing Parker down is LeBron James, who will be worn out if he has to defend him very much.

Indiana prevented LeBron from scoring in the paint, for most of the series, and that hurt Miami. San Antonio’s interior defense is almost as good, and the guy who will be asked to defend LeBron more than anyone, Kawai Leonard, doesn’t have to score on the other end like Paul George did.

And there isn’t anyone on the Heat that can defend Duncan in the post. During the regular season, Roy Hibbert took just 10 shots a game. Against the Heat’s small front court, he took 15. Duncan has not been much of an offensive weapon for the Spurs so far in the playoffs (not counting overtime), but it’s a good bet they’ll start pounding the ball into him against Miami.

LeBron is going to get what he gets, but Dwyane Wade looks hurt and Bosh should, again, be overwhelmed by the Spurs’ big front line. I just think San Antonio has too many advantages over the Miami.

If the series ends up going seven, I don’t know if you can bet against LeBron, but if it goes fewer, I’m picking San Antonio to win their 5th title in fifteen years.

NBA Finals Game 4: San Antonio Spurs v Cleveland Cavaliers

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