By John Schmeelk
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I want to take a moment and unplug the NBA playoffs from reality.
We’ll set aside individual talent and instead simply judge the coaching and the overall team play coming out of the conference finals. That said, which two teams would deserve to battle for the title?
And which would win?
I realize this is a futile exercise. Coaches create their game plans based off their players’ strengths and what they’re capable of. I do believe, however, that sometimes players and coaches become so reliant on individual talent that they miss out on the opportunity to make their players’ jobs — even for their stars — a lot easier.
There’s no doubt that the Celtics are the best-coached team in the tournament. The fact they are where they are with a lack of explosive, shot-creating athletes shows what an unbelievable job Doc Rivers has done as head coach. Sure, he has a great point guard in Rajon Rondo, but the Celtics’ offensive sets have more variety and are run with more efficiency than any other team in basketball.
The number and variety of screens are staggering, and every player on the team seems to know how to adjust the play based on how the defense reacts. Depending on circumstance, any of their top four players can take the final shot, and no one would care either way. Rarely, if ever, do you see the Celtics come out of a time out late in the game and run a basic isolation. The simple high-screen-and-roll hasn’t even been used that much, unless it was to get a mismatch in the block for Kevin Garnett or outside for a guard. The Celtics coaches have designed real plays and their players know how to run them.
San Antonio comes in a relatively close second. They rely a lot on high-screens for Ginobili and Parker, who then create off the dribble. But they’ve also run their offense through Duncan in the post, with a ton of movement off the ball. Rarely do you see the Spurs simply standing around as one of their teammates tries to make a one-on-one play. This can be traced back to George Popovich and his superior coaching. The Spurs, like the Celtics, also play great team defense and communicate.
The Thunder are gaining fast, which was made evident by three straight wins in their series. They started by dribbling too much, going one-on-one and relying solely on their stars to score. That turned into two bad losses. Since then, the Thunder have looked a lot like the Spurs with their ball movement and teamwork — and the series has completely turned in their favor. Head coach Scott Brooks has even admitted that watching so much of the Spurs’ offense has helped his team understand the importance of ball movement and team basketball. The Thunder definitely have the two best players in the Western Conference finals. And if they keep playing this way, they aren’t going to be beat.
The Heat come in fourth in this little hypothetical ranking system. Especially with Chris Bosh out, if they don’t get “A” games out of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, they don’t win. They rely on those two players to create for themselves — and their teammates — as the center of the entire Miami offense. A defensive-minded team can make the adjustments needed over a best-of-seven series, which is one of the reasons the Heat are tied 2-2 with Boston. If Miami is ever to become a true championship team, this has to get fixed. They might get past the Celtics, but they won’t beat whoever comes out of the West.
Basketball purists would love for the X’s and O’s to truly determine who takes the title, but the sad truth remains that great players rise above and can win games on their own. James Harden’s step-back three-pointer Monday night was a perfect example. The Spurs could not have played better and Harden hit a very tough shot. The same can be said for Russell Westbrook’s shot in the prior possession, hitting a mid-range jumper over Tim Duncan. The Spurs out-executed the Thunder, but they still lost. I guarantee you that whichever team wins tonight, the Celtics will play better team ball than Miami.
That being said, if LeBron and Wade play their best, the Heat are going to win. Players — and more specifically, stars — win games.
It’s the team that puts it all together that is truly great. The Mavericks did it last year with Dirk Nowitzki as their star and great team ball around him. The Thunder have the best chance of doing it this year, as they grow and learn to play properly around legit stars in Kevin Durant, Westbrook and even Harden.
Those three guys will see how much easier it is to score on some well-run plays. From there, the sky is the limit for the Thunder — a team which could very well be the next NBA dynasty.
You can follow me on Twitter for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports @Schmeelk.
What’s your take on team basketball vs. individual flash? Sound off in the comments below…