Playoff Rondo is Rising

Lakers fans have had a stressful time with Rajon Rondo. During any given Rondo minutes this past season, there was a 100% chance you could find a tweet from a fan wanting Rondo out of the game. In fact, fans often wanted Alex Caruso to get more minutes instead because he was improving and impacted the game at a higher level than Rondo.

We hadn’t witnessed Rondo in a playoff series yet (in purple and gold, at least) so we didn’t realize Playoff Rondo was coming. Now, he’s here, and it’s been a beautiful sight for Lakers fans. He’s become an important piece for the Lakers on this championship run.

When Rondo returned from his injuries, Coach Frank Vogel decided to let him play, but didn’t hesitate to take him out when he struggled. It was odd, considering he had just returned from injuries, but it ended up paying off. Playoff Rondo was awakening.

Since he joined the team in the playoffs, he’s slightly increased his numbers from the regular season:

2019–2020 regular season averages: 7.1 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists

2019–2020 postseason averages: 9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, and 7.6 APG

In the Lakers’ first two games against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, Rondo was +13 and +6. In order for the team to continue their success, they’ll need Playoff Rondo to continue to show. He can space the floor when needed and make some winning plays.

In Game 3, of the Western Conference Finals, Rondo wasn’t playing as well. He then went right back into Playoff mode and nearly helped the Lakers pull off a late comeback with suffocating defense that made the Nuggets cough up some turnovers. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough since the Lakers weren’t shooting the ball well, and Jamal Murray came through in the clutch to seal the win for the Nuggets.

One of Rondo’s specialties is making passes that look ridiculously great. Here’s a video showing some assists from Game 1 against the Nuggets:

He is also being left open to shoot a lot, which has contributed to his 3-point percentage from the regular season 32.8% rise to 41.7% in the postseason.

Oh yeah, and there’s this wild shot, which was completely ridiculous, that wowed us all:

As a Lakers fan, when I see players start improving at the right time, it makes my heart flutter. This Lakers team has gelled together really well after a shaky showing in the seeding games. Nearly all of their players, including Rondo, have improved. Although, they still have some games where they completely stink up the joint, they know how to bounce back, and usually do so with a vengeance. 

Stats from: Statmuse

BONUS! Check out The Playgrounder’s latest podcast where USA Today’s Mark Medina discusses why he voted for LeBron James for MVP.

Game Three Focus: How Brad Stevens’ Exploited A Miami Weakness

By Matt Esposito

After the Boston Celtics Game Two implosion, you did not have to search far to find shamrock fans sharpening their pitchforks. The mob was out for coach Brad Stevens, mostly for his failure to call a third quarter timeout and some personnel decisions. My own analysis found the players guilty of not executing Stevens’ zonebusting gameplan and also led me to write this prediction piece.

Resisting the urge to horn-toot, I’ll redirect my energy towards not only complimenting Stevens’ Game Three performance but, delineating precisely how he out-coached Eric Spoelstra. Stevens prepared his players to consistently attack Duncan Robinson. What’s more, he re-positioned his guys to find more success against the Heat’s zone.

Poor Duncan Robinson

Josh Wilson, the Director of the NBA Division for Fansided, beat me to the punch on this one. He was quick to identify Robinson as a swing factor in the series and even questioned if he was unplayable. His question was answered during Saturday’s contest, as Boston targeted the sniper’s defensive skills from the opening tip.

Why attack Robinson with such consistency? Two reasons. Despite being 6-foot-8, the undrafted wing is not terribly fast-footed and also isn’t known for his core strength. He can be bullied and burnt. Plus, Boston wanted to play Robinson off of the court as to remove a major component of the Heat’s 3-point friendly offense.

Were the Celtics successful. Hell. Freaking, Yes. Hopefully, the bold, underline and italics combo in that last sentence accurately portrayed my emphasis. If not, this video should do it for you. Keep and eye on how Robinson was routinely dragged into pick-and-rolls, forcing him to switch onto either quicker guards (Kemba Walker), dangerous self-creators (Jayson Tatum) or stronger players (Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.)

Watch it again. See how Smart literally grabs Jimmy Butler to prevent him from not switching during a handoff. Smart also purposely called plays to draw Robinson into pick-and-rolls. Keep and eye on this development during Game Four.

Zonebusting

Many ascribed Stevens the blame for Boston’s inability to breakdown Miami’s zone defense. What’s more likely: a professional coach not knowing how to beat a zone or, young players panicking into hero ball and therefore ditching Stevens’ game plan? I’ll go with the latter and you should too.

Regardless, Stevens found a way to get his guys to stick to the script. Additionally, he positioned players like Grant Williams, Tatum and the healthy Gordon Hayward into positions to exploit the zone. For Williams, this meant flashing into the free throw line area and roaming the baseline. Hayward did more of the same while also darting from corner to corner. Tatum also manned the middle of the zone.

Although they did not convert every attempt, the Celtics forced Miami to rotate out of position. This resulted in a bevy of open looks; ones that surely made Coach Spoelstra sweat. The ball was flying around the court and with Hayward adding a shooting punch, the Heat were often overstretched. To boot, Stevens placed someone on the baseline to keep All-Defensive team center Bam Adebayo from fully committing to stopping drives.

Zonebusting & Picking On Duncan Robinson?

Sorry, Duncan. You aren’t off the hook yet, pal. One of the benefits of implementing a defensive zone is that it can often hide struggling defenders. Impressively, Stevens still managed to target Robinson and make Miami pay.

The first play in this clip is a direct result of Boston’s constant harassment of Duncan Robinson. Jae Crowder felt the need abandon Jaylen Brown as Walker drove on Robinson. This gave Brown the step for a nice rim attack. The second play forced Robinson out of position and opened a backdoor lane for a Brown slam. Tip of the cap to you, Mr. Stevens.

BONUS: Our latest podcast recaps the series through three games. Zach and I give an in-depth discussion on the chess moves that have been played and ones that are yet to come.

Film Review: Why Jaylen Brown Was Upset After Game Two

by Matt Esposito

When I was 19, my podiatrist botched an attempt to remove an in-grown toenail. Pain ensued. Games One and Two of the Eastern Conference Finals have felt a little something like that. Apparently, fans were not the only ones who were frustrated.

Once more, Boston found themselves surrendering a sizable lead during the second half of an important playoff game. Tip your cap to the Miami Heat, however. It turns out that when large, lanky defenders develop their 2-3 zone chemistry for an entire season, it tends to pay off when you need it most. The Celtics (well, not all of them) were stymied by this scheme and it ultimately led to reports of locker room confrontation.

What caught my eye, however, was a tweet by Masslive.com beat writer Tom Westerholm. After having noticed Jaylen Brown’s lack of involvement in Game One, I kept an eye out for is Game Two usage. Westerholm also observed that Brown wasn’t receiving looks when he was open and he had this to say about it:

But what does the game tape say? Why was Jaylen irritated and did he have a right to be? You want more questions? Is it possible that Brown was upset because he knew he was the key to busting Miami’s vaunted zone? Hmmm, I’m onto something here…

Jaylen The Zonebuster?

Similar to the politics of anyone 60+, the soft spots of a zone never change. You can beat this scheme by penetrating and kicking to presumably either corner spot. This is why teams often task a strong perimeter shooter with running across the baseline. This also pairs well when the free throw line area – another zone weak spot – is occupied by someone with solid passing skills and a reliable enough jumper.

For example, check out Boston beating a Toronto box-and-one zone that had similar weak spots. Brown runs the baseline and boom, a bucket.

Or, observe how the zone struggles to guard both a handler on the right wing and someone in the corner. Brown catches, drives and receives the foul call.

He is also improving at taking advantage of the defense when they hone in on him. Daniel Theis received a sleek pass from Brown for what should have been a trip to the line (DT was hammered in the face by Bam Adebayo.) Additionally, he can attack off of closeouts in the corner and find waiting floor spacers.

Source Of Frustration?

Not only was Jaylen giving maximum energy while running from soft spot to soft spot all game long, but he seemed to be doing it more than anyone else. Knowing that he can bust a zone by either nailing corner triples or creating from behind the defense, he was right to believe he should have seen more passes coming his way.

In this play, Marcus Smart doesn’t make the right pass to Jaylen, which was also the easy pass. Instead the ball kicks around and Kemba Walker throws a dart at Brown’s feet for a turnover.

Look at the following image to see what particular pass Smart missed out on.

Inexcusable

This happened more than once throughout the game. Below, Brown would have caught the ball and immediately have been doubled by Bam and Tyler Herro. You can see the defense dart towards him. This would have been a good thing. Boston needed to exploit doubles and it’s easy to imagine a simple kickout pass to an open shooter.

Again, the image shows that the pass should have been made. Instead, Brown was forced to catch the ball in the zone’s other weak spot; an area he does not thrive in.

Multiple teammates also either missed Brown in the corner or opted to selfishly keep the ball. Sure, this defensive 3-second call resulted in a technical free throw, but this ball clearly should have been rifled to Jaylen for an open trey.

And now, the image for clarity.

Even when Brown doesn’t receive the pass, he is still helping his team. The mere threat of his corner 3-pointer draws a defender to him instead of Jayson Tatum. I’m a secret, dark money donor to the Marcus Smart 2024 SuperPAC, but this shot attempt was totally unjustifiable.

The image:

There were times when Smart succeeded against the zone yet, his play was still not the team’s best option. Here, he draws a foul against Bam (not likely to happen again) instead of slipping a paint pass to the dunk-ready Jaylen Brown. I’d be frustrated too, Jaylen.

Your last image…

Heading Into Game Three

Saturday’s contest is likely a do-or-die scenario for Boston. Despite the reporting concerning their locker room blowup, things seems to be okay after Brad Stevens led his team leaders in a pow wow. Plus, Jaylen Brown reached sainthood by somehow calmly downplaying the post-game incident.

Expect a couple of changes from Stevens. Firstly, Miami knows how to beat Enes Kanter defensively. The Turkish International will likely not see the court again unless Bam is on the bench. Stevens will look to go small with Grant Williams at the five. This allows the Celtics to switch just about everything with greater effectiveness than if Theis were manning the center spot. Lastly, look for Brown to be utilized as a zonebuster more. To boot, we’re officially on Gordon Hayward watch!

BONUS! There’s no shame in plugging content. Check out The Playgrounder’s YouTube page; we’re dropping in-depth rookie review videos. Subscribe to that and our podcast which routinely features knowledgeable beat writers, thanks!

Quick Defensive Fixes For Boston To Win Game Two

By Matt Esposito

One time, just to stay abreast of GOP dogma, I hate-read conservative author George Will’s 600+ page tome on the state of American government. It cost me 9 days, some fine bourbon and part of my hairline. I’d rather do that again than watch Boston stumble their way into blowing 4th quarter leads.

In my opinion, this game could have been handily out of reach before the 4th quarter began. A few mental lapses by the Celtic’s defense and a key match-up decision allowed Miami to get some easy looks. Fortunately for Boston, the alterations they need to make are not overly difficult to implement. What are they?

Abandoning The Perimeter/Over-helping

Tying my self-esteem to Celtics wins is a dangerous game. So, by prepping you loyal readers for this Miami offense, I was subconsciously prepping myself. Shoot, I thought I did a decent job at it too.

One area I missed covering was how to defend the Heat’s 3-point shooting. You may have heard Doris Burke proclaim that Miami led the league in 3-point percentage this season. During Game One they garnered plenty of open shots and did so by drawing Boston defenders into the paint then kicking out to open shooters.

Boston repeatedly sent one too many defenders into the paint as helpers. Teams without strong man-to-man defenders have to do this against the Heat, but Boston is not one of those teams. When it mattered most, Miami was able to take advantage of frantic Celtic closeouts.

Frustratingly for Cs fans, Boston demonstrated that they can perfectly toggle between paint and perimeter protection. Jimmy Butler – who played poorly for 44 minutes of regulation – could not find an open perimeter shooter to pass to. It is only after he dishes to the cutting Bam Adebayo that Boston sends help in the form of a block by Daniel Theis. They must continue to stay closer to floor spacers and trust their individual defense.

Who Guards Goran Dragic?

I can tell you who shouldn’t. Dragic attacked Kemba Walker throughout the entirety of the game. Walker cannot be faulted for his effort yet, Dragic has about four inches on the Celtics guard. Sensing this, the Slovenian international attacked the hoop early and often.

Relax, Celtics fans. I can promise you that we will see less of Kemba guarding Dragic in Game Two. Lock it in. Expect to see Walker assigned to either Jae Crowder or Duncan Robinson. In exchange, either Marcus Smart or Jaylen Brown will likely be guarding Dragic.

While Smart is unquestionably the team’s best one-on-one defender, it may make more sense to have Brown defend Dragic. Why?

Jaylen struggled mightily with his off-ball defense during Game One. By switching him onto Dragic the Celtics can kill two birds with one stone. Not only will Walker be less of a defensive liability, but Brown will spend more time defending on-ball instead of off-ball.

Off-Ball Defense & Communication

I swear to you that I have aged about nine years watching Boston surrender backdoor layups. I’m not ready to be in my mid-30s yet, and hopefully the Celtics aren’t ready to go home either. In order to make the NBA Finals, they must tidy up their off-ball defense and communication. I’m looking at you, Mr. Brown.

During the clip below he needlessly overplays Butler on the perimeter and gives up a cut to the basket. Additionally, he simply picks up the wrong person in transition to allow a significant bucket while the Cs were trying to put away the game. In a regular season game Boston can have these occasional mental breakdowns and still walk away winners. The margin for error becomes smaller during the Eastern Conference Finals, however. It’ll take a start-to-finish effort to win the series.

Jaylen was also involved in some communication breakdowns. At one point, Kemba Walker grew visibly frustrated with Brown for a mishap that led to a relatively easy Dragic bucket. Miami was at their best when the pace of the game quickened. This makes sense. A faster pace leaves less time for defenders to bark out instructions and results in confusion.

When Boston plays talkative, switchy defense, however, they can shut down any team in the game. Their very first defensive possession proved this. Watch as they blow up screens, communicate, switch and contest a late shot clock triple. If this level of defense is consistently played throughout the series then Boston will be favored to advance.

All in all, Boston played well last game. At points, their defense looked as sharp as ever. Offensively they must find ways to breakdown Miami’s zone. This should improve (especially if Gordon Hayward returns!) The Celtics were the better team for the majority of the game last night and can build larger leads if these defensive shortcomings are fine-tuned.

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The Celtics Must Prepare For These Specific Miami Sets

By Matt Esposito

Despite being a renowned, beachfront metropolis brimming with beautiful shades of life, there are Miami-related topics still being under discussed. Will Floridian opportunity zones increase income inequality under the guise of gainful employment for impoverished citizens? Did Will Smith really “party in the city til the break of dawn?” How is Coach Spo both highly respected and underrated at the same time?

Celtics fans are assuredly concerned with that last question, and they should be. The Heat are an extremely well-tuned team that executes with near perfection. I took the time to identify some aspects of their offense that Boston diehards should familiarize themselves with before Game One tips on Tuesday.

In particular, I shied away from detailing their much used pick-and-roll game. I also didn’t dive much into how they use Bam Adebayo along the perimeter or elbow. Those offensive elements have been talk about often so instead, let’s emphasize some lesser publicized parts of Miami’s offense.

Pistol Offense/Transition

On the surface, Miami does not appear to be a transition threat. They ranked dead last in frequency during the regular season for field goals attempts taken between 22-18 seconds left on the shot clock. Yet, this team has the tools to maximize on those attempts and make the Celtics pay.

Miami is a vastly different transition team when compared to the fast-paced Toronto Raptors. For instance, the Raptors like to run on the break while the Heat smoothly flow right into a predetermined, half-court set. They have a potent pistol offense that punishes defenses in a variety of ways.

Known for their dribble handoff plays (DHOs), Goran Dragic fakes a handoff to Jae Crowder only to continue in for a somewhat easy layup. The transition across the timeline into pistol offense is freeflowing, seamless and largely unpredictable.

In a variation of this play watch premier 3-point threat Duncan Robinson drain a triple after a pin down screen by Bam Adebayo. When they choose to do so, Miami has multiple ways to beat you in this early offense.

In a clear attempt to limit Robinson’s ability to get off a clean look, Milwaukee overplayed the dreaded shooter. This led to a lovely backdoor pass to Tyler Herro and eventually a kickout to Crowder for three.

Oh, and if you find a way to prevent a layup or pop-out triple, be prepared to feel frustrated when one of Miami’s many shot-creators buries a pull up jumper.

Fortunately, the Heat don’t spend too much time in this offense. Still, it is incredibly effective. Boston needs to make sure they communicate and switch everything in a timely fashion. If not, things could get ugly.

DHO Sets

Having studied Coach Spo’s affinity for DHOs, you can confidently color me nervous for this next series. Allow me to be egotistical and quote myself:

“Coach Spo and company elect to run DHOs with more frequency than any other team. In fact, they do so for 9.6 possessions per game which results in a frequency rate of 8.8 percent. For context, 23 others teams don’t even run north of seven DHO sets per game.”

Miami runs this offense often because it gives them loads of flexibility. The Heat have many well-rounded players who can catch-and-shoot, drive and pass. Erik Spoelstra gives his guys the autonomy to capitalize on what the defense gives them. For instance, if Robinson’s man is a half-step behind him, he is liable to shoot a gorgeous DHO triple.

Duncan is also frequently used as a decoy. He sprints towards Adebayo and causes panic among the defense, only to set an extra screen for Kendrick Nunn who sinks the DHO 3-pointer.

This 3-point shooting threat opens up a plethora of other opportunities for Miami to create good looks. The video below details how Adebayo and Robinson manipulate defenders to facilitate high percentage chances for teammates. It is truly one of the hardest schemes to defend in the entire NBA due to the secondary playmaking options.

Once more, Boston must rely on its switchability and communication. After fighting over handoff screens to ensure Robinson cannot get off a 3-pointer, the Celtics must react to the next level of breakdowns Miami will attempt to exploit.

Drag Screens

Armed with high IQ players, Miami runs savvy drag screens that also give the ball handler agency to read and react. Brad Stevens runs these sets often as well, so Boston may actually find themselves well prepared to limit their effectiveness.

Firstly, check out how this double drag screen morphs into a pin down of sorts. Jimmy Butler is one of Miami’s least reliable perimeter shooters but it is hard to miss being this wide open.

Players like to “get out” on these screens to take away the 3-point look. Plus, they are quick to tag the roller. When this happens, one of the Heat’s many handlers can drive and kick back out to a popping teammate, such as Kelly Olynyk.

Perhaps these well executed screens force defenders to switch. If so, a guy like Dragic can breakdown his slower defender and get to the rim.

Even when a team does not switch defenders, Miami still find a way to score. Because, guess what? They’re really freaking good. If you need proof then watch Herro simply take his man to the cup despite the double drag not being terribly impactful.

And if one of the Heat’s drivers get the step on his defender, a two-one-one chance occurs. Miami makes teams pay the price by lobbing to the ultra athletic Bam Adebayo. Attempts don’t get much more higher percentage than this, folks.

Deception

When Coach Spoelstra is not conducting any of the sets above, he’s likely deploying some evil genius level type of deception. I bluntly labeled this next play “Twister” due to the nature of its screens and how it left me feeling disorientated.

Once you think you have a read on how Miami utilizes Duncan Robinson, the Heat hit you with a backdoor cut. Players (and rightfully so) get caught up in fighting over screens to prevent the shot. So, Miami runs a play that springs Robinson for an easy two near the rim. Best of luck defending this.

How To Prepare

In spite the many ways I just showered compliments upon the Heat, Boston still has a solid chance at slowing down the Heat. In order to curtail Spo’s creativity, a team must be able to switch just about every screen. In addition to that, they need to have strong defensive chemistry that rests upon a foundation of communication.

Boston has all of those ingredients. Although they boast a bevy of switchy defenders, the Celtics could get even switchier when Gordon Hayward returns. To boot, their littlest player, Kemba Walker, has been playing strong defense when being forced to guard much bigger players. Expect a lot of backline talk from Daniel Theis as him and the Cs try and keep pace with a well-oiled Miami machine.

BONUS! NBA.com’s Sekou Smith joined us to discuss all things related to the Miami/Celtics series. Some very enlightening insight from someone down in the bubble. Listen and sub, thanks!

It Sure Looks Like The Rockets Missed Their Chance

You could’ve said the Houston Rockets blew their best shot at a title in 2018 when, up 3–2 on the planet-eating Golden State Warriors, they coughed up consecutive double-digit halftime leads in the Western Conference Finals and lost in seven games. You could’ve said it a year later when, during the second round, Houston again failed to beat the Warriors after Kevin Durant exited with an injury and entered halftime of a closeout game tied at 57, despite Steph Curry scoring zero(!!!!!!!!) points in the first half. You could say it now after the Rockets, at last spared Golden State’s wrath, moped their way to a worse-than-it-looked 4–1 defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers Saturday night. You could’ve said each of those was their big chance. But you were probably right the first time.

I was extremely high on the Rockets coming into the season. True, Russell Westbrook was never quite as snug a fit next to Harden as Chris Paul was, but there was still reason for optimism. For most of his Oklahoma City tenure, Westbrook was a dragster forced to navigate forests of defenders, and he still completed the most passes to three-point attempts in his final year with the Thunder. Houston offered him, for the first time, a wide-open terrain to rampage and the shooters to cash in on his dimes.

The fully realized version of these Rockets might be modern-basketball Nirvana. If opponents double-teamed Harden, Westbrook could morph into a rocket-powered Draymond Green-variant and annihilate scrambling defenders on four-on-three opportunities. When it came Russ’ turn to steer, Harden could feast on easier catch-and-shoot threes and slice through softened defenses instead of relying on contested step-backs. On the other end, Houston’s platoon of rangy, switchable wings, anchored by human-anvil PJ Tucker, could wreak havoc in passing lanes and swarm paint-trespassers in packs.

Unfortunately, glimpses of those idealized Rockets were fleeting throughout their series against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Andrew Lawlor wrote that the Lakers could succeed where the Oklahoma City Thunder failed by using their size to dominate the paint. Early in the series, the Rockets held their ground, even matching the Lakers board-for-board in Game 1. In Game 4, Frank Vogel inserted Markieff Morris into the starting lineup and excised LA’s two bigs, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, from the rotation. From there, Anthony Davis did his best Godzilla impression, and the Lakers bludgeoned Houston on the boards to the tune of 50–26. One of the key factors in Houston’s foundational three-is-better-than-two inequality is relentless effort on the interior. Their Game 4 effort was, umm, decidedly not relentless:

The Rockets will (rightfully) catch a lot of flack for the way they projectile-vomited all over the floor after Game 1. But the Lakers weren’t just bystanders watching the Rockets’ three-point machine implode; they gummed up the assembly line with well-timed traps and clogged driving lanes with pinpoint rotations until Houston malfunctioned. After the Rockets shot 51 threes per game against the Thunder, the Lakers held them to just 40.8. LA’s destruction of the Rockets’ offense further highlighted the defensive precision Houston so sorely lacked.

Much like the team up north that whimpered out of the conference semifinals in five, the Rockets are staring down an offseason filled with questions they may be unable to answer. Houston has been in win-now-worry-later mode for years, and now, it’s later, and they’re almost completely devoid of cap space and tradeable assets. As of ~2 PM EST on Sunday, they’re also in the market for a new head coach. And in case you forgot, Daryl Morey, the architect of Houston’s mathsketball machine, is a few months removed from getting a not-really-endorsement from owner Tilman Fertitta. There’s a nonzero chance D’Antoni’s departure is only the beginning.

I don’t believe the small-ball experiment is a failure. Prior to the shutdown, Russell Westbrook looked like he’d tapped into the best version of himself. After the end times 2020 arrived, Westbrook averaged 31.7 points per game on 52.7% shooting. The main factor? He largely eschewed outside shots from his repertoire, cutting his attempts from 3.7 per game to just 2.3 (NBA.com). That doesn’t solve the problem of the Lakers ignoring him behind the three-point line, but had Westbrook been more than an angry broomstick on offense, the Rockets might have stood a chance.

Despite how ugly the losses have been, the only teams to beat the Rockets in the last three postseasons are one of the most dominant teams ever and one of the most dominant individual players ever. The Rockets can reach basketball Nirvana; they just need to find the right combination of pieces, and those pieces have to perform at optimal efficiency. But that’s the thing about utopias: they’re predicated on theory and not practice, and operate in idealism rather than realism.

Film Review: How Los Angeles Drastically Lowered James Harden’s Shot Attempts

By Matt Esposito

Coming into the series, James Harden was known for being a high volume shooter. Not only did he routinely throw up north of a dozen triples per game, but he found efficiency by getting to the line. Yet, the former MVP is criticized (and rightly so) for being largely ineffective once the ball is out of his hands.

Los Angeles knew that in order to win the series they must encourage Harden to either take tough, contested shots or surrender possession to a teammate. Put more simply, the Lakers dared Houston to rely on Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon to carry the offensive load. A battle-tested theory, focusing on curtailing your opponent’s best player seems to work out more often than not.

So, how did LA attempt to limit Harden? Two ways. Firstly, they tossed some defensive zone into the mix. More specifically, they used the zone to cover their butts when trying to double Harden. Secondly, Los Angeles threw pre-planned, well-timed double teams at the combo guard while playing man coverage. But did these schemes find success?

Zone Doubling

What’s the impetus for running a zone during double teams on James Harden? Presumably, the players who are not defending Harden have one extra man to guard. Defending space, not players, seems like a strategy that would make sense if there are not enough Lakers to cover all of Houston’s off-ball players.

While the scheme achieved Los Angeles’ goal of preventing field goal attempts for Harden, Houston was still able to capitalize. Although not always obvious, LA appeared to be in a 2-3 zone during the plays below. Houston was able to generate open shots and attack the weak spots on the court.

Zone doubles onto Harden were too predictable. Heady players know beforehand where the soft spots of the zone are. A well coached team such as the Rockets flashed into those areas and made LA pay. But what did we see when Frank Vogel threw out a rare box-and-one zone?

Box-And-One Scheme

Watch LeBron James creep up near Harden as he mans one of the elbow spots in the zone. You can sense him waiting for the right moment to double onto Harden and force a pass. Houston came prepared. Eric Gordon sent Austin Rivers through to zone as a decoy. With elite corner shooter PJ Tucker moving to his favorite perimeter spot, Gordon received just enough space for a comfortable catch-and-shoot triple.

Zone doubling helped the Lakers get the ball out of Harden’s hands, but the Rockets were able to score regardless. In man coverage, however, Los Angeles did a much better job of helping onto the open man or pressuring Harden into making mistakes.

Man Doubling

Whenever LA played man-to-man defense, Harden often looked uncomfortable. Better yet, he looked frustrated to the point where it induced lethargy. The Lakers were able to surround him with lanky wingspans and pesky defenders. This resulted in deflected passes, kicked balls and lots of turnovers.

Rewatch those plays one more time and look for Harden having to direct his players where to go on offense. Additionally, keep an eye on how he was frequently forced to push the issue, something that definitely lead to turnovers. Not only did these well executed doubles limit Harden’s shot attempts, but they kept him from settling into any sort of offensive rhythm.

By Game Five, however, Los Angeles was able to fully cash in on this scheme. They anticipated Houston’s…well, anticipation (I’m writing this minutes before NFL kickoff, gimme a break!) Predicting where Harden would pass when he was doubled, Los Angeles was able intercept passes. The best representation of this can be found in the play below.

If the Lakers meet Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers in the next round, do not be surprised to see this strategy. carry over. Los Angeles was able to lower Harden from his regular season average of about 12 3-point attempts per game to 7.4 in the postseason. That’s a remarkable feat. If Kawhi gets hot, expect LA to run a similar scheme.

BONUS! Listen to me and Zach Wilson summarize our feelings about this series. Plus, NBA media legend Sekou Smith joins us to talk Miami versus Boston!

Data Scouting the Draft for 3-and-D Wings

By Andrew Lawlor

A good introductory step to scouting the NBA Draft is to use data to filter players down to who can play a projected role. This helps give an idea of who each player is, stylistically. Let’s take a look at which draft-eligible players meet criteria to play as three-and-D wings, one of the most valuable commodities in the league.

Every team needs wings who can defend and space the floor. It is a rare combination, but is extremely valuable. To identify players who can play this role, I searched Sports Reference College Basketball’s Play Index for draft-eligible guards and forwards who met or exceeded the following criteria: a defensive rating of 95.0, a 2.5 steal percentage, a 2.5 block percentage, a 70.0 free throw percentage, 500 minutes played, and at least one three-point attempt per game. That left me with the following list, ordered by prospect ranking on CBSSports.com:

NameAgeOverall RankSTL%BLK%FT%3PA Per Game3P%Defensive Rating
Pat Williams1982.55.683.81.732.094.1
Devin Vassell20132.84.173.83.541.593.6
Paul Reed21363.39.773.81.830.888.8
Tyler Bey22393.14.274.31.041.985.7
CJ Elleby20802.92.582.36.833.992.8

Florida State freshman Patrick Williams is the youngest player on this list, having just turned 19 on August 26. At 6-foot-8, 225 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, he is big enough to hold up defensively against pros. Williams played good team defense this year, but will have to improve his one-on-one defense, as he sometimes struggled to contain perimeter players. He will also have to improve his shooting (32% from three); Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer says Williams has a “low, slow release.” But his 83.8% free throw shooting indicates he has a nice shooting touch. Generally, free-throw shooting in college is a better indicator of shooting ability than college three-point shooting because of a larger sample size and removed distractions. 

Unlike many other players on this list, Williams has a good handle and can make plays off the bounce. He turned the ball over a lot this season (1.7 turnovers per game to only 1.0 assists), so he will have to work on limiting those. But his playmaking chops could allow him to develop into more than just a three-and-D player.

Out of this year’s prospects, Devin Vassell, another Seminole, best fits the profile of a three-and-D wing. He can step into an NBA lineup tomorrow and contribute. Vassell is one of the best defensive prospects in the draft; he knows when to rotate and help, making him a good team defender, and he has the quickness and length to swallow perimeter players on the ball. Florida State held opponents to a 93.6 rating with Vassell on the court this season, and against a tough ACC schedule to boot. At 6-foot-7, 194 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, he may have to put on some weight to bang with stronger players inside. But his perimeter defense is already excellent.

Vassell is a good shooter (41.5% from three on 3.5 attempts per game, 73.8% from the line), but does not provide much else offensively. He cannot take players off the dribble and lacks burst; thus, he struggles to create his own shot. But his combination of defense and shooting should make him a valuable NBA player from day one.

DePaul forward Paul Reed looks more like a big than the other players on this list. He is 6-foot-9, 220 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, and he was able to leverage his jumping ability to block 2.6 shots per game. Reed is also quick enough to step out onto the perimeter and hang with guards and wings on defense. However, he is still pretty thin, so he is not yet great at post defense. He also needs to develop his outside shooting touch (30.8% on 1.8 attempts per game), but his free throw shooting (73.8%) suggests that that’s an attainable goal.

Colorado Forward Tyler Bey is 6-foot-7, 216 pounds with an impressive 7-foot-1 wingspan. He profiles as an excellent defender who can hang with both perimeter players and bigs. He mostly played inside on offense, and only barely met the one-three-pointer-per-game threshold; he will need to change his game for the NBA, where he is more likely to play outside. Bey’s shooting form needs work, but his solid 74.3% free-throw percentage indicates he has some potential as a shooter. He is already 22 years old, so he likely has less room to grow than the other players on this list, but Bey should be able to step in and help on defense right now, and may be able to provide shooting eventually, too. That is good value in the late-first or early-second round.

Finally, Washington State’s CJ Elleby is the most prolific shooter on the list. He already fires 6.8 threes per game, and his 82.3 free-throw percentage indicates that he has good touch, so he should be able to raise his 33.9% three-point percentage in the pros (though he does have some funky form that he may need to fine-tune). Elleby lacks the athleticism of the other players on this list, and he blocked fewer shots (1.0 per game) than all of them, too. But he led the Pac-12 in steals with 1.8 per game, and, at 6-foot-6, 200 pounds with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, he has the size to guard wings at the next level. He may be a sleeper pick in the second round.

Featured Image By Ryan M. Kelly, Getty Images

Bubble Players Who Can Build On Their Breakout

By Nick Faggio

The prolific scoring inside the NBA bubble has headlined much of the league’s restart. What has not been headlined as much? The under-the-radar players quietly raising their stock. Many lesser-known players around the league have increased their value inside the bubble—let’s explore some of those guys.

Gary Trent Jr., G, Portland Trail Blazers

During Gary Trent Jr.’s rookie campaign last season, he averaged just 2.7 points and was regarded as a developmental piece for the Blazers. Even before the bubble, Trent Jr. was an afterthought of standout Trailblazers. A second round pick drafted by the Kings, Trent Jr. was not even Portland’s selection!

Now the Duke alum has put the whole league on notice, and emerged as one of the most surprising bubble players. In the Blazers’ first five bubble games,, Trent Jr. scored 17, 21, 16, 27, and 22 points. Trent Jr. has become one of the key pieces in Portland’s playoff run, and he has done it with his knockdown three-point shooting. Although Trent Jr.’s last two games he has shot 2-12 from downtown, prior to those he was shooting 62% from the 3-point line. Trent Jr. has become the Blazers’ fourth-leading scorer, and. has given the Blazers the bench production required for a potential playoff run. Many Blazers fans were excited about Anfernee Simons’ potential, but Trent Jr. has stolen the show.

The second-year player has displayed some newfound swagger to match his play. Cameras caught him exchanging words and jawing at Paul George during Portland’s 122-117 loss to the Clippers, in which Trent Jr. scored 22 points on 6-10 from beyond the arc.

Gary Trent Jr. has been playing great, and could be one of the reasons Portland makes the playoffs. His steady shooting and stellar defensive presence on the wing could help lead the Blazers to a first-round upset of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Troy Brown Jr., G/F, Washington Wizards

While the Wizards have been nothing close to competitive in the bubble, the emergence of Troy Brown Jr. has been Washington’s most captivating storyline. Over eight bubble games, Troy Brown Jr. averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 4.5 assists across multiple breakout performances, much improved from his pre-bubble stats of 9.7/5.3/2.3. The Oregon product also recorded seven steals over his last three games. Washington’s 1-7 record pushes the “good player on a bad team” narrative, but when Ish Smith is your starting point guard, there are only so many ways to win. 

Troy Brown Jr. has earned himself increased touches, especially for a Washington team without entrenched starting forwards. The 15th pick in the 2018 draft has flown under the radar for potential bubble breakout players, but he increased his value exponentially in his sophomore season.

Chris Chiozza, G, Brooklyn Nets

When Brooklyn’s top six players were left off the bubble roster, many questioned whether or not the Nets could win a single game. To everyone’s surprise, Brooklyn went 6-2 in bubble play and secured the seventh seed in the East. Brooklyn’s surprising success was thanks to many Nets players stepping up when called upon, including Chris Chiozza.

Chris Chiozza is a second-year player, a former Florida Gator, and was relatively unknown prior to the bubble. In five bubble games in which he played 18 minutes or more, Chiozza averaged 8.2 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 5 assists, a much improved tally from Chiozza’s 0.9/ 0.6/ 0.6 rookie season numbers.

Chiozza helped lead a horrendous Nets team to a 6-2 record, including a gritty 119-116 win over Milwaukee in which Chiozza dropped a double-double en route to the upset. Chiozza is just 5-foot-11, but he uses great speed and craftiness to get his shot off over taller defenders. The former Florida Gator has made a name for himself in the bubble. Chiozza’s Isaiah Thomas-esque playstyle has reminded NBA defenses that heart over height is still a formula for success in the league.

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, G/F, Brooklyn Nets 

Similar to Chiozza’s case, as Brooklyn’s roster dwindled, Luwawu-Cabarrot enjoyed an uptick in minutes. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, or TLC for short, has shone even brighter than Chris Chiozza. In six bubble games in which he played 20 minutes or more, TLC averaged 18.8 PPG on 47.5% shooting from the three-point line in regular season bubble play. Whether the myth of shooting being easier in the bubble is true or not, TLC’s three-point percentage is extremely impressive. In game one of the opening round of the playoffs, TLC dropped 26 points on 9-13 from the field. Against a team with the defensive prowess of Toronto, that is quite the playoff debut.

The Nets already thought highly of TLC when they signed him to a two-year deal this past offseason. Now, TLC will definitely see an increase in his minutes and touches. An extra floor spacing wing for KD and Kyrie to attack next year makes next year’s Nets that much scarier.

Chris Boucher, F/C, Toronto Raptors

Chris Boucher doesn’t get a ton of minutes, but when he plays, he puts up numbers. The rim-running forward/center has put the league on notice when Nick Nurse plays him. In bubble games where Boucher plays more than 10 minutes, he averages 15.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game. Boucher is shooting 55% from beyond the arc, and that shooting ability serves as an extra floor-spacer for other Raptors to attack.

The Raptors are a team built on chemistry and hustle, and a versatile defender like Boucher fits perfectly with Toronto’s style of play. Nick Nurse is known to be crafty, and I would not be surprised to see Boucher getting more minutes whilst Toronto tries to take home their second consecutive championship. Perhaps Toronto will use Boucher as a secret weapon deep into the playoffs.

Film Review: How LeBron James Is Defending The Rim Against Houston

By Matt Esposito

It would be easy to cite LeBron James average of 2.7 blocks per game during the Houston series as evidence of his shot blocking prowess. Too easy. I could also state that he had as many blocks last night (4) as Anthony Davis has had the entire series. But to suggest that LeBron has been the linchpin to Los Angeles paint protection requires a deeper look and a whole lotta film.

Lucky for you, I have said film. Why write when you can show, right? But before I smack down the film, it is imperative to know the main strategies to defending James Harden. Firstly, Los Angeles is engaging in schemes to have him pass early. Harden does not move much without the ball, so accomplishing this is a win for LA. Secondly, they have been shading him to both prep for his notorious stepback jumper and encourage him to drive into help defense. Check out Bron and ADs’ body positioning.

Los Angeles is willing to live with forcing Harden into a rotating rim protector and then helping the helper. Yet, their best rotating big has been LeBron James. With Davis frequently dragged onto the perimeter and JaVale McGee playing a total of 28 minutes so far this series, James has been tasked with paint protection duties. How has he performed so far?

Forcing Kickouts

Okay, I promised less writing. In the spirit of self-plagiarizing, let me restate that the trick to defending Harden does not lay in where you meet him on the court rather, where you meet him in his decision making process. James has had immaculate timing on his rotations and has caused turnovers or kickouts.

Eric Gordon was forced to opt out of a rim attempt as well. The Lakers need to trust that LeBron and AD will deter shots and rotate quicker to the perimeter, although they have done a solid job at that already.

This next play is subtle but one of my favorites. An instinctual early rotation from LeBron changes Gordon’s mind about going to the rim. Instead, he opts for a well-contested midrange two, the last shot Houston wants.

Altering/Blocking James Harden

Harden’s shot chart near the rim is liable to looks like ants gathering around someone’s spilled potato salad at a summer barbecue. Yes, he loves taking triples, but when he is not launching 3-pointers Harden is almost exclusively getting deep into the paint.

Fortunately for LA fans, LeBron has been meeting him there. Although Harden has had some success at the rim, LeBron has made life difficult for him there when the two collide. Again, Bron’s early rotations paired with his freight train body have led to altered shots or blocks.

There may not be a current Laker who has the awareness, foot speed and leaping ability to make this next help-side rejection.

Rotations Away From The Paint

Throughout the first three games of this series James is posting a wild 3.3 block percentage rate, which is surely one of the highest in the NBA right now. This is partly due to his ability to rotate onto kickouts and/or help when teammates get burnt. Consider this rotation onto Gordon and the ensuing swat.

Houston causes tons of defensive movement and LeBron has the athletic profile to keep pace. What’s more, his IQ is still in peak form. It is the reason why he is able to help off of his man for this nasty rejection of a Russell Westbrook shot.

Below, James doubled on Gordon to stop his drive then found his way back to Westbrook on in the corner. This demonstrates how LeBron can help off of his man but still recover in time to ensure there is no offensive advantage (no, I’m not done with you yet, Russ.)

Transition

Hopefully by now you have learned that although LeBron’s chasedown narrative holds water, it is far from the only way he contributes as a rim protector. Still, his fastbreak defense has been excellent and is starting to impact future Rockets decisions.

LeBron has blocked Westbrook’s fastbreak attempts multiple times during this series. Watch in awe.

These blocks have likely found their way into Westbrook’s head in the form of bad memories. It could be why Westbrook opted for a transition kickout (that led to a turnover) rather than jeopardize anoher layup attempt during Game Three.

In Game Four, expect more limited minutes from any Lakers big that doesn’t sport a unibrow. Los Angeles has found success with defensive schemes that task LeBron with being a rotating paint protector. This, combined with an effort to limit Harden’s 3-point attempts, has led to a 2-1 series lead.