NBA playoff games are battles of momentum, thrusts and parries, feints and adjustments. For example, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich started fouling the Clippers’ notoriously bad free throw shooter DeAndre Jordan in the 2nd quarter of Sunday night’s game. That’s awfully early, though perhaps he was taking a page out of Coach David Blatt’s playbook to disrupt a flowing Clippers offense which had run out to a big lead against the defending champs.
Cavaliers legend Jim Chones commented at practice on Monday that the tactic is to force the other coach to take Jordan out, but that would really hurt them on the boards where Jordan led the league. “Every one of those rebounds is a possession,” Chones pointed out, suggesting this was just Coach Popovich jabbing Rivers to see if he’ll respond by removing Jordan. “But he knows Doc’s too smart to do that.”
This cat-and-mouse is central to the game, and the subject of several questions the last couple days. A week or so ago Blatt told the PD’s Chris Haynes that there was surely some cards they hadn’t played. “We’ve got some things left in the bag,” Blatt said. “We’re not trying to be magicians, we’re just trying to figure out ways to win.”
Then before the first playoff game Blatt told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, “I don’t think we’re different from any team. You add a little, you take out a little, and then you’re ready to make adjustments when you have to but certainly we give a lot of thought to the things that work or could work against Boston. The wrinkles we want to have we have and we’ll be ready to make adjustments if we want to.”
We followed by asking about potential adjustments being an important in disrupting another team’s rhythm or perhaps surprising them with a look that will discombobulate them for a few possessions.
“It wouldn’t be a surprise if I told you then, would it?” Blatt cracked. “Again we are what we are as most teams are at this stage. We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. Little things you can do that perhaps gain you a yard there or a foot there you’re ready to do. When the situation presents itself where you have to make an adjustment you have to have something in the package prepared to do so. But we’re not going to look like a completely different team.”
Beyond broad strokes, Blatt feels little need to go further and has always stopped short on discussing tactics. But “adjustment” was such a hot-button topic even LeBron James had to answer questions about it.
“Adjustments throughout the series no matter where the series ends up and the adjustments game-to-game are going to be very important to your success,” he said on Monday. “I think we’ll be even more prepared tomorrow night.”
Obviously adjustments are the name of the game. Sets become familiar and teams must be ready to go to their third and fourth options off of action. One of the things that was immediately interesting to me during the first game was the Celtics reaction to the roll man on the high pick and roll (above the key, as opposed to the side version).
Early on, the Celtics were cheating off the 3-point shooters and hedging into the lane to disrupt the alley-oop. You may not recall but they got burned several times by Timofey Mozgov during their match-up in March. The Celtics are very small and I foresaw them having some trouble guarding it.
We asked Stevens about this in March, and got such a good response that Joe Vardon used Stevens' response to our question in his column two days ago. He may not know a good question, but at least he recognizes a good answer.
“We can stop them rolling to the rim if we wanted to,” Stevens said. “The problem is you leave all the shooters open or you let LeBron lay it in. You can't do one thing. You have to do everything. And the reason that they have had such success rolling to the rim is, A, they have good players, but B, who they're surrounded by.
“If you have LeBron James in a pick-and-roll and you have JR Smith, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love standing around it, who are you leaving?” he asked. “When I coached against Duke, and it was relative to the level, before he got hurt, [Kyrie] had four shooters and Mason Plumlee rolling to the rim… It's like, what are you going to do? Cross your fingers and, maybe it works for 32 minutes.”
So given that response it was interesting to see the Celtics work so hard to clog the lane and left the Cavs open at the three line. It did work early on, as the Cavs went 2-8 from distance, but the next two quarters they were 9-17 the next two quarters as FIVE different guys hit threes, James not included. (They were only 13-27 inside the arc).This annihilated the Celtics approach though Stevens' answer was of the “they hit shots” variety, so we might see more of the same.
LeBron was pretty non-committal about the Celts’ anti-“oop” defensive strategy. “Any team would rather have a team shoot jump shots than layups and dunks,” he said. “For us we just need to read and react and see what they’re doing.”
They also sent double teams whenever he had the ball in the post and at other times to force someone else to beat them, not necessarily surprisingly but worth watching.
Six Celtics scored in double figures in the first game and that’s key for them. They don’t have any go-to scorers who can create for themselves and have something more resembling a significantly less talented Hawks, surviving on ball movement. They have one of the top five rates of baskets with an assist.
The key to the team’s turnaround (winning 24 of last 36 games) as the addition of Thomas who provides the Celtics with their won sort of poor man’s Russell Westbrook. It’s not for nothing that Thomas came in third for this year’s 6th Man of the Year. His offense is a catalyst for the team but his size and subsequent defensive issues force Stevens to spot him. The Cavs didn’t exploit him as much as you might think, given the Celts lack of a rim-protecting big.
On offense, he’s the straw that stirs the drink, with incredible driving ability for such a small man, and a canny knack for the midair pass or drawing a foul. He poses issues and even though the Cavs bottled him up well he still got 22 points, 8 of them at the line.
Here’s what Blatt said about Thomas’ skills prior to the end of the season:
“You can’t really play him one way because he’s so great off the dribble and he can shoot the basketball. In a pick and roll situation, on the fastbreak, in the kick-out world. You obviously have to get to him and with his speed and his penetrating ability he causes you problems. Despite his diminutive size he still has the ability to get to the rim sand score the ball or get fouled. And he’s had prolific scoring games. This is a guy who can really put it in the basket. It’s challenging or anyone.”
We expect an even bigger performance from Thomas in tonight’s game, but the Cavaliers seem really focused on what they’re doing. The vox populi mock Perkins, and he indeed seems to be a stop-action movie sometimes out there, but he looks a lot more effective in practice when he can get a head of steam. Like a locomotive, he’s just not very useful over short distances. Don’t be surprised though if he gets some pick and roll opportunities sometime this post-season.
The real addition of Perkins is for Tristan Thompson who has a locker next to him. Perkins has become a Tristan workout partner in practice and seems to be sharing everything he can with the young Thompson, who seems equally receptive. James and Thompson have commented to the press on this so it’s out there somewhere, but it bears mentioning because Perkins influence in there in ways most people would never see.
77 Consecutive Curry Threes in Practice
During the NBA broadcast there was a rumor or discussion of the fact that Stephen Curry had hit 77 3-pointers in a row during practice. Charles Barkley immediately pooh-poohed this saying nobody could even hit 30 in a row. Of course that’s probably the most Barkley’s made without getting hungry or bored. Fred Newman has hit 88 free throws in a row blindfolded, and 209 3-pointers in a row which you can find on YouTube.
Here’s what Campy Russell had to say about shooting 3s, and for that matter any shot.
“It’s really just about mechanics and shooting the ball the same way every time with the same motion and if you can shoot the ball the same way with the same motion the likelihood of it going in goes way up,” says Russell. “Once you change your mechanics or they move one way or another that’s when you miss…. [Curry] has great mechanics. Kyrie Irving has great mechanics – and that’s why they trust their shot.”
We’ll be at the Q tonight for the second game of the playoff opening series against the Celtics. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read our (semi-) daily columns in the Cleveland Scene, as well as catching me every Monday at 10:45am on Michael James’s Defend Cleveland show on WRUW, 91.1.