Speed kills, but so do giants
Deandre Ayton and Jordan Poole bring the pain
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BY DAVID THORPE
Phoenix shows us the blueprint
Two weeks ago, TrueHoop launched an investigation into huge guys. We’ve been examining why some teams routinely choose to bench their centers and go small while others are sticking with their bigs. Guarding smaller, quicker men is hard. It appears that scoring against those same little guards is hard as well.
Our investigation will culminate next week with a dive into how teams can best take advantage of their big men when opponents go small. You got a perfect preview in Game 1 between Phoenix and Dallas.
The Suns refused to go small when the Mavericks did. Instead, the Suns punished them for doing so and dominated the boards 51-36. Deandre Ayton is not a great low-post scorer, but his team knows how to use him effectively. It’s that simple, but also that complex.
For Dallas to even this series, they will have to devise a counter for how the Suns use their bigs. Given their lack of real size, that’s going to be an uphill challenge. Phoenix, a well-oiled machine on both ends, executes at a very high level—and their battle with the Pelicans sharpened them. The Mavericks will have to find a way to surround Ayton and wall him off the rim the way teams try to do with Giannis.
Diversifying their offense a bit more would help, too. Luka Dončić is going to win an MVP award someday. Maybe multiple MVPs. Phoenix just witnessed his full range of skills. But Luka’s takeover, which turned the Dallas offense into a ’90s isolation throwback, came at the expense of other Mavericks. Jalen Brunson was scintillating against the Utah Jazz, especially when Luka was out—that wasn’t the case in Game 1 against Phoenix. It might be too late to try more ball and player movement; even if they do, I’m not convinced they’ll be able to take down the Suns. As incredible as Luka is, the Mavericks are not ready to get top performances from multiple guys on multiple nights.
Not yet, that is….
Sixers must become a new team without Embiid
The Philadelphia 76ers did a lot right during Game 1 in Miami. They looked comfortable attacking Miami’s zone defense, moving the ball quickly and getting paint touches before taking high-percentage shots or kicking it out. Tobias Harris, who made 11-18 shots to finish with 27 points, was sharp and assertive—a must for the Sixers to be competitive without Joel Embiid. They did stay competitive for a half and even went into halftime with a surprising one-point lead.
Had James Harden played more than a handful of possessions at an All-Star level, the Sixers might have pulled off the upset. He didn’t, and they didn’t. Still, the Sixers did prove they have enough to win games once Embiid returns. But can Philadelphia win four of seven? That depends on how many games they end up losing without him. Having to win four games of the next five is asking too much. Is three of five more doable? Probably, but that means they have to take Game 2 in Miami.
For that to transpire, Philadelphia will need improved bench production (21 points in 91 minutes, 1-12 from 3) and far better shooting from their starters. Harden, Danny Green, and Tyrese Maxey combined to shoot just 13-34 overall and 4-18 from 3.
Maybe you can count on improved shooting from these guys in Game 2, but counting on better shooting is not sound strategy. Earning more shots is—so, the Sixers will have to pound the defensive glass. While that comes with risks, it also comes with rewards.
The Heat snagged 15 offensive boards in Game 1. In Embiid’s absence, they’ll need to be able to keep rebounders like Paul Reed (nine rebounds and five fouls in 13 minutes) on the floor. Increased effort to keep Miami from getting second chances will likely put a dent in the Sixers’ transition game—it’s hard to beat opponents down the court on a fast break if blocking them out is a priority. Given how hard it seems for Philly to manufacture a big offensive game without Embiid, though, limiting Miami’s shots is worth the risk.
Sometimes, to pull off an upset, dominating an area that was formerly a weakness can catalyze improved play in other areas. Upsetting the Heat, which the Sixers will do if they are able to win Game 2 in Miami, would be a huge confidence builder (even bigger if Kyle Lowry returns). However, if Miami has only a few offensive rebounds going into halftime, that won’t mean Philadelphia is necessarily on track to win.
But to see the team competing to win—not just waiting for their superhero to return—would be a very good sign for the Sixers.
Jordan Poole is a unicorn
No matter where De’Anthony Melton and the Memphis defense turned during Game 1, peril awaited them—and Jordan Poole was the greatest threat.
NBA defenses are designed to take away 3s and dunks/layups. The Golden State Cuisinart—designed to carve up heaps of both—overwhelms opposing defenses with moving parts. Push up to mark the shooters, you die a death of 1000 (inside) cuts. Drop down to intercept drives or thwart cuts to the rim, you risk getting lit up from outside.
Memphis faces constant paralysis by analysis. If Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson weren’t enough, now the Warriors have Jordan Poole, too. Melton is top-blocking because Poole is red hot from 3 in these playoffs, and the Grizzlies want to push him off the 3-point line. Determined to make it hard for Poole to beat him around a screen, Melton readies for a race away from the hoop to protect against an open 3. But the Cuisinart is engineered to inflict damage there, too. Cutters have full agency to read the defense, react on the fly, and slice you up backdoor for easy buckets—or even cut and then loiter for a moment in the dunk spot so drivers who draw help from the cutter’s man have an easy dish for a dunk or layup.
Through six games, Golden State tops all postseason teams in offense. They are scoring 117.8 points per game, averaging 120.6 per 100 possessions. That’s some serious efficiency. Before Game 1 against Memphis, some might have argued that those numbers were inflated against Denver’s mid-level defense. Then they dropped 117 on the Grizzlies’ sixth-ranked defense….
You might wonder how the Warriors do this so well when their primary screeners (Draymond Green and Kevin Looney) are not shooters. By ungluing their big men from the dunk spot and lifting them up the court, the Warriors open cutting lanes to the rim. This creates a perfect scenario for an extra perimeter predator like Jordan Poole, who has become an integral part of the Warriors’ offense. He can cut and shoot like his “Splash Brother” teammates, but his supersonic speed is his most defining attribute.
Speed is how much ground a player can cover in a blink or two; quickness is the same thing, just inside of a blink. Poole has both. Look at this long pass at the end of the first quarter. Poole beats Melton down the court to make the catch, then is fast enough to maintain that space as he gets to the rim. For players like him, there's just no catching up.
Now watch his burst of speed on his dribble versus Jaren Jackson Jr. He spins JJJ around then EXPLODES forward. JJJ expects to stay in position to block the shot, but he’s done the second he gets turned around.
We’ve seen speed merchants do this before—Allen Iverson, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, John Wall—super-fast guys who are impossible to stop from driving to the rim. But Poole can also beat you from 3, something those guys never could really do. (Rose did develop that facet after his injuries had sapped him of his racing superpower.)
That’s why guys like Poole—along with Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey—are the new unicorns. On average, about one guy per year has even the potential to deploy super speed with the kind of shooting talent that leads to shooting 36-plus percent from 3.
People are quick to credit the Warriors’ front office for their draft acumen. I see it differently: The coaching staff is good at developing players. Poole should have been a top-10 pick three drafts ago, probably even top five. The Warriors got him at 28. That’s more luck than skill. But turning Poole into a $20-million-a-year player, which his upcoming extension will likely make him, is a credit not only to his work ethic and talent but also to the Warriors’ overall vision and game development.
No matter how Melton and his Grizzlies teammates decide to defend Poole, he will get to his spots faster than they will—and that’s a credit to the Cuisinart.
Brandon Clarke would love a do-over
It’s fun to dissect last-second plays and their execution, and Game 1 gave us a thrilling one: possibly the fastest-moving dribbler in the world, Ja Morant, flying downhill to the rim.
Here’s what I saw:
Ja Morant is right-handed, so I’m sure he prefers flying down the lane with his strong hand and jumping off his left (the better) leg. But it was a wise play design to have him play off Brandon Clarke going left, especially since the inbounds occurred on the right side. That defender could have easily bothered Morant and the entire Clarke-Morant handoff action.
Maybe Morant could have thrown the ball to his left, where Jackson Jr. was left open as his man dropped a bit to help out on Morant. But that man, 6-8 Otto Porter, could use his wingspan to recover easily and contest the shot or force JJJ to fake and side dribble. In that case, I’m not so sure JJJ would have been able to get a shot off. He shot very well throughout, but he’s no Klay Thompson. Likely, JJJ can count the number of last-second 3s he’s taken in his entire life on one hand.
Klay was in perfect position to pick up Morant and prevent him from changing angles so he could attack with his right hand. He did his job, forcing him to stay left and finish with his (weaker) left hand.
The shot Morant missed may have seemed easy, but it wasn’t. He’d be lucky to make that shot three times in 10. Racing that fast makes it much harder to finish softly. (The rules of physics do remind us that an object traveling inside a moving object is traveling at the same speed.) Thus, until released from his fingers, that ball was flying, too. There are no brakes on that basketball. That’s why he attempted to use the backboard—had he tried to swish it, he definitely would have airballed. But that’s also why the attempt caromed off the glass and over the rim. Next time, he would likely try to kiss it higher off the glass, but he’s still dealing with an incredibly high level of difficulty. (We practice these shots. I have seen just how hard they are.)
All that said, I’d make two tweaks to what was a solid play design:
Firstly, start Morant a bit closer to the center of the court. That way, he could be closer to Clarke as he catches it. I still think Clarke gets open because denying him too hard makes Thompson susceptible to a back-cut lob for the game-winning dunk. Then, with Clarke in the same spot, Morant is just a heartbeat away. He can dart right down the same path, only he’ll get there even quicker.
The bigger mistake? Clarke should have faked the handoff, pivoted right, attacked the rim, and crushed it.
Fake handoffs are very hard to defend. Klay almost certainly would lean to his right, toward Morant. Involuntary or deliberate, that movement would give Clarke the edge to attack Klay’s left hip and get downhill. From there, he could drive on his strong side for the dunk/layup or kick out to a shooter if help arrives.
Maybe this works four times in 10, but that’s still better than the alternative.
The battle of the bigs out East
Who ever said that big men are no longer relevant?!
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis, Al Horford, Robert Williams … Game 1 saw five men who stand around seven feet tall, have started numerous games at center, or both. All that size made paint scoring a problem. Unless something changes, we’ll see more of the same in Game 2. Advantage, Bucks.
Last postseason, Milwaukee learned that no one can stop Giannis inside. He delivered a Finals series for the ages that earned the Bucks a championship. However, Phoenix started just one big man (Ayton), and their best backup big (Dario Šarić) was hurt. The Celtics are far better at defending the interior—a big reason why Giannis went 9-23 inside the arc in Game 1. I expect Milwaukee to continue to pound the paint, at least until they lose a game or two. And that won’t happen easily.
The Celtics averaged 37.7 3-point attempts per 100 possessions in the regular season, 45.5 per 100 against the Bucks. They have continued that trend in the playoffs, taking 36.2 per 100 against the Nets in the first round. In Game 1, Boston took 50 in exactly 100 possessions, showing how well they know and respect Milwaukee’s interior defense. It looked to me like they were doubling down on the idea that they’ll need to shoot well (and often) to beat the Bucks, so guys were quick to launch from outside.
That’s not who the Celtics are, but I like the strategy. It’s an effort to loosen them up—something we saw Coach Pop do when the Spurs had to contend with Miami’s super-fast defense in LeBron’s last series with the Heat. Should Boston’s players have more success in Game 2, it might impact how the Bucks defend them and open up the paint for their big forwards to drive. They might even shoot them out of the building.
Still, the Celtics are in a dangerous spot. Losing two home games to a team this good likely spells an early end to what could be a title run. But with Middleton out, I see Boston being a little more determined to draw the Bucks’ bigs toward the perimeter before attacking, and then reading shot or kick out as those bigs race back inside to help.
Giannis is the world’s best at recovering on defense, but having to do so repeatedly could tax his energy on offense. The key for the Celtics is surviving four games to head home 2-2. Each game, they will learn more about constricting the Bucks’ offense, which is without its best one-on-one perimeter shot creator. That gives Boston a huge advantage to win two games of the final three.
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