There are now three teams left in the NBA title race. The Los Angeles Lakers took care of business last night against the Denver Nuggets, securing their spot as the representative of the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. With LeBron James entering his 10th NBA Finals in 17 seasons, an incredible feat he accomplished with four completely different rosters in three different decades, we await to see who his final adversary is in this 2019-20 season.
The Lakers were able to wrap up their series in five games, largely thanks to their team composition which features several 7-foot-tall players that were able to effectively neutralize Nikola Jokic. This physical style of play took a serious toll on a Nuggets team that was exhausted from two prior seven-game series. With Micheal Porter Jr. and Bol Bol continuing to develop, along with their two established stars, the Nuggets are going to be a threat for the next five years at the minimum.
I genuinely believe that fatigue on the part of the Nuggets and LeBron deciding it was time to go Super Saiyan ended the series prematurely. The biggest takeaway from the Lakers is that they are nearly unbeatable when their role players step up and hit their perimeter shots. Currently, the Los Angeles Lakers are 12-0 in the postseason when they connect on over 30% of their threes. Last night, behind LeBron’s superhuman 38 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists, the team also shot 37.5% from distance. The King is gonna need his snipers ready in either potential matchup in the finals.
Switching gears to the Eastern Conference, the Celtics-Heat series is shaping up to be a classic. With momentum shifts on a game to game basis, stars like Tyler Herro emerging and two of the best coaches in the game duking it out in a player personnel chess match, the series has been a treat to watch. The key for the Boston Celtics in Game 6 is beating the Miami Heat’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense. This form of defense is designed to limit drives to the paint and stagnate an offense. It is highly effective against teams that rely on two to three players to do the bulk of the scoring.
In reference to the basketball Synergy database, “offenses have been more efficient against zone (0.99 points per possession) than against man-to-man (0.96)” but sometimes have a much higher success rate than others, primarily due to the zone being personnel dependent. This style of play necessitates long athletic defenders that can rotate on pick and rolls and closeout vehemently on perimeter shooting threats. Warriors head coach and legendary Jordan-era Chicago Bulls marksman Steve Kerr stated that, “It’s not a great way to shut people down. But what it is is a great way to expose a couple of weaknesses or change the tempo, change the pace of the game. It’s becoming more and more relevant in the league these days. A lot of teams are utilizing it to good measure and with a lot of success.”
Miami has used it all season, showcasing the zone’s efficacy against the league’s top offenses including the No. 1 rated Dallas Mavericks and defending champion Toronto Raptors. While the zone did not seem to be much more effective than playing standard man to man defense against the Dallas Mavericks for the first three quarters, it served as a litmus test to show the situational utility of the defensive scheme late in games to amp up the defensive pressure and potentially force game-changing turnovers. However, the Raptors struggled mightily throughout as they scored just 0.76 points per possession against the zone, compared to 0.97 against man-to-man according to Synergy. This is because the Raptors primarily rely on the services of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet to hit perimeter shots. Teams that cannot shoot well from beyond the arc as a unit are in for a long frustrating game against the 2-3 zone, which is why it is a favorite among high school and collegiate basketball coaches.
The key for the Celtics to tie and potentially win the series is to establish multiple players as offensive threats early. Having multiple players being able to shoot, especially from 3-point range, stretches out the zone and makes it ineffective. The Celtics were able to get a great offensive game out of center Daniel Theis in Game 5, while limiting the production of the Heat perimeter players, specifically in the third quarter. His contribution was essential as it did not allow the Heat to crowd driving lanes in the paint, spreading out the zone as a whole and creating openings for the Celtics’ stars.
As coach Brad Stevens pointed out, they have just begun to get back to playing Celtics basketball. I believe the Celtics are the more talented team on paper, but will they be consistent enough to get back into the series? We’ll have to see. Game 6 of the Celtics-Heat series tips off at 7:30 p.m. EST on ESPN and it is a can’t miss for any basketball fan!