Hoop Logic with God Forbid’s Doc Coyle: NBA Conference Finals Moneyball vs. Superstars
It’s easy to appreciate Mark Jackson, head coach of the Golden State Warriors. He’s an outlier, a fearless polymath who took an unusual route to his position: He was an all-star NBA player, then broadcaster, then head coach. Mere mortals must grind out success at the helm of a D-league team and down the bench from masters Popovich or Rivers, then wait poised for a rare opportunity. Not Jackson. He got himself hired to lead a playoff team with two budding megastars, and guided them to a post-season series win via inspired team ball. Wow!
So lol we might consider Jackson the NBA’s Doc Coyle, also a five-tool superstud whose takes his own route to awesomeness. He’s a force behind awesome metal records with God Forbid, he’s a NBA analyst par excellence, a great dresser and drinksman, and now the master of his own internet website, DocCoyle.net yaaay! Stalk him there later, but now here’s Doc on the riveting 2013 NBA Playoffs in his column Hoop Logic! Doc, go!
Doc, which team is the biggest threat to Miami’s championship plans?
Doc Coyle, God Forbid: We have to understand that the Miami Heat are not unbeatable. They had an historic season and 27-game winning streak, but they were not blowing teams out during that streak. Many of their wins against mediocre (or worse) teams came down to the final minutes. And this post-season, the Heat have not really been challenged. The Bucks, their first-round match-up, are by far the worst team in the playoffs, and were playing so bad heading into the post-season that it looked like they were tanking their way into the draft lottery. Still Miami didn’t blow out Milwaukee, even though it was a sweep.
In the second round, the Heat faced a Bulls team that could not put their best foot forward because of injury. I never expected Derrick Rose to return, but this series would have been much more competitive if Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich were healthy. Deng is among the NBA’s best LeBron-stoppers while Hinrich gives you solid ball pressure, outside shooting, and the opportunity for Nate Robinson to be the sixth man with a scoring punch off the bench. So, along with the everybody else’s, the Bulls earned my infinite respect; I’ve never seen a team that unhealthy compete so hard. Props to Coach Tibs and those boys who looked like that were staying stitched together by super glue and duct tape.
So the Heat haven’t really been challenged yet, having mowed through the sub-par Bucks and depleted Bulls. Now the Heat won’t underestimate the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern conference finals (game one Wednesday night on TNT), because they haven’t been pushed to the brink yet may make more likely that Indy could steal a win in Miami. Not to mention that LeBron and crew have waited through a second long break — the rust showed in their game one loss in the Bulls series.
Another factor is that Dwyane Wade will not be 100% from now on. I don’t think this changes Miami’s status as the championship favorite, but it makes them more beatable. I expect the Heat to eliminate the Pacers in five or six games, but this will be a tough series. The Pacers have great defense, they rebound the ball, and they play together. Last season, Indy blew their 2-1 lead over Miami partly because they stopped pounding the ball inside to big men David West and Roy Hibbert — I don’t expect them to repeat that mistake this week. Can Chris Bosh contain Hibbert? He greatly outsized. Chris “Birdman” Andersen will play a huge role as the Heat bench’s best big.
As for the Finals, I think the Grizzlies are a tougher challenge. The Spurs’ style is much more similar to Miami’s: fast pace, unselfish ball movement, high-percentage buckets, and excellent defense. Meanwhile, Memphis could force Miami to adjust their style to play grind-it-out half-court basketball. I could see the defense of Tony Allen and Mike Conley completely taking Wade out of the series — and you still have to deal with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol down low. Indiana had the best-rated defense in the regular season, but Memphis has become the best defensive team in the NBA since the arrival of Tayshaun Prince. They swarm you and wear you out over the course of a game. Perhaps the Indiana series will be like a training camp for Miami versus Memphis since they are constructed similarly.
DOC: Let me first congratulate the Knicks on a great season. 54 wins, an Atlantic Division title, second seed in the East, and advancing to the second round of the playoffs are big accomplishments for a team that has been in the dog house for more than a decade. I am bummed out that they lost because it looked like game six was in hand, but no one thought they would be as good as they were, so overall it was a great year.
To answer the question, I say it was a little of both. First off, the Pacers played their game: inside-out offense, suffocating defense, and extremely physical play. Boston and Indiana have written the rule book on how to play this version of the Knicks; that starts with not double-teaming Carmelo Anthony (above left). It helps that these teams have Brandon Bass and Paul George, respectively, who can actually keep Melo in chece and force him to take tough shots all game. (Melo also has a tendency to tire out in the fourth quarter.) The effect of playing Melo straight up: It allows the defense to stay close to New York’s many three-point shooters. New York just broke the record for made three-pointers in a season, and it was the key to their success — along with low turnovers. With Melo going one-on-one, and his league-leading usage rate, the Knicks offense stagnates. Ultimately, the most important player in the series was Hibbert. When he was in the game, the Knicks got virtually zero good looks in the paint. He also killed the Knicks on the offensive glass. The X-factor was Lance Stephenson because of his energy, finishing, and eight rebounds per game at the shooting guard position, which is huge.
As great as the Pacers were, the Knicks still had the talent to defeat them, but three things happened where they shot themselves in the foot. First, J.R. Smith basically had a John Starks game seven Finals performance every game since game four back in Boston. I have never seen a shooting slump last that long, especially at the least opportune time. He shot 29% since his suspension for the elbow to Celtics G Jason Terry. Yes, J.R. deserved to win his Sixth Man of the Year, but just didn’t show up in this series. They needed him to be that guy for at least a couple games.
Factor two: C Tyson Chandler was playing hurt. He only averaged six points and six rebounds in the series — a little more than half of his season average. He was dominated by Hibbert, who grabbed rebounds right over him. Chandler was frustrated often, and argued with teammates for missing defensive rotations and leaving him on an island. So for the Knicks, if your Sixth Man of the Year and All-Star center don’t play as expected, you won’t win.
The third factor — and the most important one — is that head coach Mike Woodson may have been exposed as a coach who cannot make smart adjustments over a playoff series. Throughout the post-season, fans and media begged for F Chris Copeland (above right), and when he finally got in the game, he promptly lit up the scoreboard. Also, G Pablo Prigioni turned around the Knicks’ regular season when he was put in the starting line-up, and their perimeter defense and ball movement improved. Yet Woodson favored Jason Kidd, age 40, who brought very little to the table. It says a lot that Woodson was unable to add creativity to the offense to counter the strategies of Indiana and Boston. Woodson is a good coach and motivator, but maybe not the great late-season tactician that a team requires to advance. I think the Knicks need to hire a Moneyball-style advance metrics guy like John Hollinger to advise, because Woodson goes with gut over facts too often.
DOC: I love Z-Bo. I love the whole Memphis team. They looked like the best team in the playoffs against OKC. Going back to John Hollinger, they might be the Moneyball team of the NBA — especially if they reach the Finals. That could call into question the NBA’s culture of superstar worship: A big name might sell tickets and jerseys, but the game and evaluation systems are evolving.
It’s amazing how Memphis and Indiana are so similarly put together. They are stocked with late first-round and second-round draft picks. Traditional centers and power forwards that play back to the basket, on the block. (We should note the return of the traditional center. Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah, and Andrew Bogut were integral to their teams’ successes. It’s nice to see that position is not dead anymore. It will be interesting to see how Miami deals with dominant big men in forthcoming games.)
In this post-season, we learned a lot about Oklahoma City Thunder sans Russell Westbrook. First, he is the heart and motor of that team. Without him, they play slower and with less emotion and everyone has to work much harder for shots. Open shots for Serge Ibaka, Kevin Martin, and Thabo Sefolosha were created by Westbrook’s breaking down the defense and getting into the lane. Now Ibaka has been exposed as an incomplete player: Though a great shot blocker, he gets killed one-on-one against big, strong post players. His jumper is great, but he doesn’t have much else besides that. To make huge money and to have such athleticism, he has to improve. And the trade of James Harden is looking worse every day. I hope OKC is planning to amnesty Kendrick Perkins, move Nick Collison into a starting role, and do some retooling.
DOC: Parker, Duncan, and Ginobli did fine when their team was eliminated last year by OKC — their problem was Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, and Matt Bonner failed to hit shots that they had been hitting all season. (That and OKC’s big three just went crazy and couldn’t be stopped.) The Spurs need balance to be successful. That had been the key to their regular season dominance the last few years. The Spurs’ Hall of Fame trio can carry them for stretches, but are not what they used to be. They need help for sure.
About ten days ago, I would’ve picked Memphis to reach the Finals, but once I saw how the Spurs closed out Golden State, I think they can beat Memphis. After all, the Grizzlies just barely eked out wins against a Westbrook-free Thunder team. Plus, Z-Bo and Gasol haven’t had to deal with a low-post threat in this post-season; they got to score at will in the paint, and then save their energy on defense. Now, Duncan and Tiago Splitter are better low-post scorers and defenders than they have seen all postseason. The Spurs have no real weaknesses. They can play fast or in the half-court, play very solid defense, and can beat you inside and outside. This will be an interesting series, and Memphis could win. Although, I would rather see San Antonio in the Finals, because of all the beautiful offense to watch. Plus you have the storyline of an old dynasty meeting a new dynasty ala ’91 Lakers/Bulls Finals. I would love to see San Antonio win another title.