With every postseason comes a number of highlighted themes – factors of the game that become emphasized in a different environment. Some are new revelations born of tactical back-and-forth reaching a conclusion point that can be applied by others in the league, others are reminders of long-understood ideas that may have fallen into the background. In some instances, minutiae unearthed in a given playoffs becomes standard league practice moving forward.
What have been the key lessons of the 2015 postseason so far? Let’s have a look.
Rest and Depth Matter
In a theme I touched on from the jump back in April, the assumption by some that rest is only a regular season concern that goes out the window for the more important games is incorrect. It’s true that rotations tighten up and stars are expected to carry more burden – teams attempt to rest bigger names down the stretch in the regular season for just this purpose – but this doesn’t give a coach carte blanche to simply run his best players into the ground.
Because of the nature of fatigue and its relatively unknown status, it’s easy to overlook. What’s the damage done if a given star plays two or three extra garbage time minutes, as long as he doesn’t hurt himself? It can be tough to decipher in the moment at times, but we’ve seen teams like the Clippers and Rockets wear down in the later stages this season. Can we conclusively say this wasn’t due to fatigue-related issues from earlier on?
Of course, sometimes a given coach has no choice. Exhausted stars aren’t optimal, but they’re often better options than some of the replacements many teams have waiting behind them on the depth chart.
This is what makes solid players further down the roster so vital, another area where the Clippers were a key casualty. But they weren’t alone – the Hawks struggled mightily without their starting five (to be fair, they struggled with them as well relative to expectations), and the Rockets were pretty thin behind James Harden. Meanwhile, groups like Memphis, Golden State and, somehow, Cleveland (for now) have had success as role players have stepped up when called upon.
The guys at the top draw the big checks for a reason, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that ignorance further down the roster is a recipe for disaster even with superstars on the payroll. Look for this to be a hot-button issue in future seasons as our understanding of fatigue and the body increases.
Cover Your Weak Spots
Somewhat related, though this is more of a revisited yearly theme. It seems we see it at some point during every postseason: a rotation player suddenly played off the floor, often a result of just one or two extremely specific holes in their game being exploited repeatedly.
He may not have been completely run off the court, but the way Golden State began treating Tony Allen later in their second-round series is a great example. By placing Andrew Bogut on him ostensibly, but in truth allowing Bogut to roam as he pleased and daring Allen into low-percentage jumpers, they turned Memphis’ offense into a four-on-five proposition that did a lot to turn that series around.
There have been other less extreme instances as well. Dennis Schroder couldn’t stay on the floor against the Cavs even when Kyrie Irving was out or below 100 percent. Spencer Hawes is no star, but he barely saw a minute early on against the Spurs. Though there’s plenty of series left, even Bogut and Draymond Green have seen their roles reduced some as they’ve been rendered far less effective by Cleveland’s brute machine.
Smart teams grow exponentially more ruthless this time of year, and glaring weak points are exposed in short order. The theme only seems to grow more prevalent each year, and is a big part of the league’s increasing emphasis on versatile players with multiple above-average skills in their bag.
Superstars Remain King
It may seem counterintuitive after the last two points, but they remain important without obscuring what remains by far the most vital factor for franchises with title aspirations: a true superstar.
The Spurs may have broken the mold to a degree last year, but they’re still the exception to a rule that’s been proven a number of times over. Just look at this year’s four conference finalists – the league’s top three finishers for MVP voting were all still alive, and the only team lacking a megastar was blitzed in four games as their scheme and focus broke down.
The playoffs are matchup-driven, and stars occupy their perch precisely because they create so many favorable ones for their teams. Other minutiae remains important, but the franchises with a true superstar almost always have a leg up, both during the regular season and the playoffs. And in the end, it’s often the team that does the best with both sides of this coin that triumphs. Unless one side has LeBron James, perhaps.
Injuries Still Suck
Not much explanation is needed here. We see it every year, and this one in particular seems to have been especially cruel to marquee players. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, John Wall, Mike Conley, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll are some of those who have been affected, if not knocked completely out, by injuries over the last month or so.
What can be done, and how much elements like rest can play into the equation, remain vital questions moving forward. For now, though, it’s mostly just unfortunate. Let’s hope we can conclude this NBA Finals series without any more players getting hurt.
Coaches as Chessmasters
Another theme I’ve touched on (before the Finals began), is the back-and-forth one-upmanship that takes place between coaches in a given series. These range from larger themes, like that of rotations covered above, all the way down to excruciating details like the execution of a particular set against a particular defender.
These Finals have thus far been among the most entertaining in this regard in many years. David Blatt has done a fantastic job with an undermanned group, scheming to pressure Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to levels heretofore unseen while daring the Warriors’ supporting cast offensively to beat them much the same way the Dubs did with Allen in the Memphis series. The detail involved from both coaches has been incredible, with Steve Kerr making subtle adjustments to Golden State’s actions between and even within games only for Blatt to sniff it out and counter.
The way Cleveland has leveled the playing field with their gritty playing style is a thing of beauty, but whether they have enough tricks up their sleeve to hold off what remains a clear Warriors talent advantage is yet to be seen. For NBA die-hards, not only is this a supremely entertaining series, it’s among the most interesting from a tactical standpoint in a long time.
LeBron James Remains the League’s Best Player
Okay, so few had truly doubted this in reality. But having finally crossed the 30-year age barrier and with his lowest MVP finish in half a decade, it was at least fair to wonder whether peak LeBron was a thing of the past.
Maybe it is efficiency-wise, but from a raw value standpoint, these questions have been silenced emphatically. LeBron is controlling the basketball floor at unprecedented levels this postseason, particularly in these Finals, and the sheer force of his will has the Cavs halfway to defeating a historically great Warriors team despite multiple injuries and a healthy rotation that wouldn’t sniff the playoffs on its own. The burden he’s undertaken is spectacular, threatening Michael Jordan’s Finals scoring record (they’re currently tied at 41 a night) while at the same time averaging nearly a triple-double on a seemingly unfathomable minutes load.
If he can hold up physically and drag this group to two more wins, it will have to go down as one of the most remarkable Finals performances in the history of the game. Even the two games Cleveland’s picked up to this point are more than most smart folks assumed they’d get – actually defeating this Golden State team would be a feat for the ages.
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