The 2020 NBA Playoffs have been brilliant to watch from a fan’s perspective. Teams have played at a high level across every single round. There have been instant classic series such as Thunder-Rockets, Jazz-Nuggets and Celtics-Raptors. It is everything that a basketball fan should want on a nightly basis.
In many respects, the actual basketball has made up for the lack of the fans. While it is sad that we could not hear and see the ‘Peake’ in full force; the entertaining games have been a worthy substitute.
The Bubble environment has also provided a few interesting ideas which could increase the quality of play in the future. The lack of a crowd around the court meant that players could play harder without the fear that they would be injured by falling into the crowd.
The exciting series have stemmed from the fact that teams are relatively evenly-matched. Each individual game has been a chess match for coaching staffs across the league. In the Lakers-Rockets series, Frank Vogel recognised that Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee could not be played at all.
Vogel took these players out of his rotation and adjusted his scheming. The Lakers became more focused on trapping Harden and forcing Harden to dish the ball. It was a scheme that worked really well due to Harden’s lack of off-ball movement when he was not handling the rock.
Oklahoma City did make adjustments but the commitment to these tactical changes were half-hearted. The fabled small ball lineup with Gallinari at the five was used sparingly despite this particular unit having a strong net rating.
It is difficult to pinpoint an exact reason why the Thunder did not make significant timely adjustments. The personnel on the roster, the Rockets’ style and Billy Donovan’s coaching all factor into this debate. I would argue that Billy Donovan’s coaching was the most important factor in the Thunder’s downfall against the Rockets.
Billy Donovan was a good coach during his time with the Thunder but the tactical aspect of the game was a weakness for him. Donovan’s weakness in the Rockets’ series was sticking with a traditional big man throughout the series.
Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel are not bad players by any means but they are not suited to play against a team like Houston. Noel fouls too much and can be drawn out of position defensively. Steven Adams simply did not have the lateral quickness to keep up with Jeff Green when Green ran the offense.
It is impossible to say whether the Thunder would have would won the series if Darius Bazley or Danilo Gallinari played more minutes at center. However, I do believe that this would have given the Thunder a stronger chance of winning the series. The offense would have ran more smoothly due to the additional spacing provided by these lineups.
Adjustments were a limitation of Billy Donovan’s coaching throughout his tenure in Oklahoma City. The Russell Westbrook era was defined by injuries, underachievement and a lack of adjustments in the playoffs. Billy was a contributing factor in that.
Oklahoma City beats Utah in 2018 if Billy commits to Jerami Grant running with the starters in the closing moments of the game. The same goes for the series against Portland. Oklahoma City have a better chance of winning the series against Portland if the Thunder attack Enes Kanter down low.
These failures should not be forgotten and have to factor into the Thunder’s thinking going forward. A coach who can think outside of the box and make tough decisions should be something that Sam Presti considers strongly during the current coaching search. This season’s playoffs is the perfect example of coaching making all the difference.
It was expected by the majority of NBA pundits that the Milwaukee Bucks would make it out of the East to face the Lakers or Clippers. The Bucks were slapped in the second round by the Miami Heat. The Heat outplayed the Bucks despite having a roster that is worse on paper.
The Eastern Conference did not turn out to be a cakewalk for the Bucks; the East has been a real battle between the Bucks, Heat, Raptors and Celtics. The Bucks were swiftly knocked which meant there were three remaining teams in the East.
All three of these teams have coaches who are willing to adapt their schemes and make adjustments when it matters. Miami’s work against the Bucks is the perfect example of good coaching.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ leader on offense. When Giannis plays well, Milwaukee wins games. Nick Nurse devised a strategy last season in which he built walls in the interior. He used Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka to take away Giannis’ most efficient shooting zone.
Erik Spolestra built on this strategy in the playoffs by increasing the ball pressure placed on Giannis. Spolestra followed the similar sort of concepts that Nurse deployed but he chose to use a zone to take away any space inside.
It was hugely effective; Giannis was stifled and could not create in the way that he is accustomed to. Miami took away the threat of Giannis’ dribble penetration and made shot creation much more difficult for the Bucks.
This is not the only tactical change that Spolestra has made during this season’s playoffs. Spolestra has changed the scheming of his zone against the Boston Celtics. The Heat have been more proactive in the zone. The Heat do not allow mismatches to be created and they shrink the floor really well.
The Celtics were favoured to win this series by quite a few members of the NBA media. Boston can put four players on the floor who can run the offense. It is a huge strength to have especially in the postseason.
The playoffs are a different story to the regular season. The game slows down and teams are more reliant on their stars creating in isolation. The Celtics have the personnel to excel in these situations.
A lineup with four shot creators creates a relentless churn on offense. Defenses do not get a minute to rest as the ball is constantly being swung to a player who can do something with the orange. Miami have negated this advantage by being aggressive in the zone.
Jayson Tatum or Kemba Walker are able to receive the ball on the wing or at the top of the key but dribble penetration is not an option due to the zone coverage. The Celtics do the right thing by recycling the ball but they rarely find a weak link. Miami are incredibly well drilled defensively.
As a result of the Heat’s success with the zone, Miami are 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals. It has been a brilliant performance by a team who many had written off.
The Celtics are another team who have made timely adjustments in the postseason. Brad Stevens has long been regarded as one of the best coaches in the league on a purely tactical standpoint. Stevens has been brilliant at making the most out of the talent which he has had.
Brad Stevens coached a Celtics team without Kyrie Irving to an Eastern Conference Finals in 2018. Al Horford was the Celtics’ most important player. Stevens has been brilliant at extracting the most he can out of a group of players. There is only one season where the Celtics fell short of expectations.
In the rest of his tenure with the Celtics, Brad Stevens has over-achieved with the players that he has at his disposal. This season has been no different. The Celtics have made the Eastern Conference Finals despite finishing 3rd in the regular season.
Boston was able to win the series against Toronto by mixing up the match-ups on Pascal Siakam. Siakam was the Raptors’ leading scorer this season. There is no one way to guard Siakam. Pascal is comfortable knocking down deep shots and driving to the hole for looks at the rim.
Stevens used Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum on Siakam. Each player had a different role and responsibility when working on Pascal. Smart played an intense, gritty style in which he got into Siakam’s jersey and bothered Pascal.
Brown was very good at using his length and size to stop Siakam from getting easy buckets inside. The Raptors sought to post up Siakam a lot and Brown matched the challenge. He bumped Pascal repeatedly and did not allow Siakam to establish good post position.
Tatum was also very good at knocking the ball away from Siakam when he drove to the rim. Jayson used his long arms to reach in and take the ball away from Pascal without committing a foul.
Stevens has shown an ability to coach up a team of players. The players on the court are responsible for winning the game. However, it is a great coach who puts his players in a position to succeed. Stevens put the Celtics in positions to win throughout the Raptors series and it paid off. The Celtics won in 7 and advanced to the ECF.
Although the Raptors have been knocked out this season, they have been one of the sharpest teams tactically over the last two seasons. Nick Nurse is a coach with a long and varied career.
Nurse is possibly the only NBA head coach who has coached in the British Basketball League. He has coached in so many different situations that he has become incredibly versatile with his style. Nurse is able to win games by finding the right adjustments and rotations for a particular series.
In the Finals last season, Nurse was able to nullify the threat that Stephen Curry presented. Curry was the only primary creator on the floor due to Durant’s Achilles injury. Curry is one of the best players in the league when it comes to draining deep shots with ease.
Nurse ran a box and one coverage on Curry which took the former MVP out of his rhythm. It was almost impossible for Curry to find space where he could score or create for others. It was a high school coverage executed to absolute perfection by the Raptors. Nurse deserves a lot of credit for having the courage to use a seldom-used coverage.
Nurse’s coaching goes deeper than just playoff basketball. When you watch the Toronto Raptors, the effort and intensity is clearly visible. Every player is committed to the scheme that has been laid out by the coaching staff.
It is one of the reasons why Toronto has been so good at switching seamlessly through schemes during possessions. The Raptors can go from man to man to zone to a triangle and two within one possession.
All three coaches share two characteristics in common. All three coaches are versatile and think outside of the box. These factors have improved their current teams innumerably. Oklahoma City have to look at these characteristics in their next coach.
The Thunder do not have many advantages as a small market team. Oklahoma City cannot absorb losses like a big market team like the Lakers or Warriors. The Thunder do not have the drawing power that a city like Miami has.
The only real advantages that the Thunder are ones that the team can control. Organisational culture is one advantage. Great coaching is another advantage that the Thunder will be able to rely upon if Presti appoints a brilliant coach. In my mind, this coach will be versatile and development-oriented.