Zones de Nick Nurse
The Warriors didn’t have Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson for significant stretches in the 2019 Finals, but Toronto didn’t quite reach a championship. Golden State won Game 2 in Toronto with Durant sidelined on the night of the series as she returned to the Bay Area. Yet despite the loss, Nick Nurse made a discovery that shaped the series.The Nurse deployed a box-and-1 on Steph Curry in the home stretch of Game 2, freezing a Warriors offense that lacked the play to exploit the Toronto trap. The strategy was used throughout the series, particularly in Game 6, with Curry’s two star running mates being injured. In retrospect, the nurse’s decision was revealing. Toronto has turned to an area more than any team in the league this season, not afraid to use the ploy against the top talent in the East. If Toronto faces players like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Ben Simmons in Orlando, another creative decision could be on the horizon. The nurse is the NBA’s first mad scientist. The restart of the NBA will be another test of its brilliance.
Malone plays Bully Ball
The Nuggets mapped out the biggest starting lineup in recent memory in their scrum against Washington on Wednesday, pairing Bol Bol 7’2 ”unicorn in practice with Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee. Paul Millsap was the smallest nugget on the field to start the game, forming what is effectively the Western Conference’s antidote against the Rockets. Malone won’t be so extreme at the start of the regular season, but his scrum experience is worth noting.
Denver has the staff to really increase in the playoffs. Jokic and Millsap started the roster’s matches in 2019-20, and Jerami Grant won the casual start. The aforementioned trio have only played 10 minutes together this season, although there is still a way for Denver to pull off an oversized frontcourt. Enter Michael Porter Jr.
The Missouri rookie has shown a silky shot in limited action this season, showing his potential as the nation’s former No.2 rookie. Porter’s talent is undeniable, even though he recorded just 14 minutes per game in 2019-20. It’s time for Mike Malone to let the youngster go free. The depth of the Denver frontcourt is perhaps its best asset. Malone would have to rely on his big bodies in the playoffs.
Brett Brown’s par
The COVID-19 hiatus may have calmed the conversation over Brett Brown’s employment status, though it’s hard to assume the Philadelphia head coach is on a solid footing heading into the playoffs of 2020. The Sixers entered the season with legitimate hopes in the final. They met these expectations with a stalled attack and a disastrous road toll. Still, it’s hard to shake Philadelphia as a contender for the Finals. The Sixers remain perhaps the most confusing team in basketball.
Brown is at least trying to make a difference in Orlando. The Sixers will push Ben Simmons to power to resume the season, which in theory should help loosen the shoe amid the Philadelphia offense. Simmons will still run the show in transition, where he’s frankly a threat to opposing defenses. But he’ll be a glorified roll man and a half-court dunker. The movement has its merits, again, in theory. Simmons averages a healthy 1.06-point possession per rolling in 2019-20, and he spent a lot of time in the dunker spot near the baseline in last year’s playoffs. Are Brown and the Sixers investing heavily in Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz? Sure. But the previous state of affairs just wasn’t working. The effectiveness of Brown’s bet can turn Philly’s season upside down.
D’Antoni is riding the wave
The Rockets began turning into the small ball world in January and confirmed their commitment in early February when they swapped Clint Capela for Robert Covington. And Houston only doubled during the NBA suspension. The Rockets cut their only center of rotation in favor of injured David Nwaba, and they signed Luc Mbah a Moute instead of an emergency center. D’Antoni and the Rockets have no choice but to pair James Harden and Russell Westbrook with three wings. Houston’s rotation is historic due to its lack of size in the frontcourt.
Early feedback suggests a team that has the advantage of competing with a small ball unit. At their best, the Rockets are an elite defense for a change, wreaking havoc in the passing lanes and on the edge. PJ Tucker is a really tough rim protector despite being 6’5 ”tall, while Covington and Westbrook are elite revenue generators. Covington has been a dominant defensive piece in 14 games for Houston. We will count on him more than ever in Orlando. D’Antoni and the Rockets will pilot their powerful little ball unit as far as it takes them in the 2020 playoffs.
Maneuvers in the front area of Vogel’s
The Lakers have been mocked for their off-season additions of Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, with many dismissing Los Angeles’ chances in the final due to poor rotation around its two superstars. The big men from both Lakers have proven the skeptics wrong this season. Not only did Howard and McGee perform well, but they also posted impressive efficiency numbers alongside Anthony Davis.
The new Los Angeles star has been pushing to play All Four this season, a major reason for heavy use of Howard and McGee by head coach Frank Vogel. Many assumed the setup would wear off in the playoffs, with Davis likely to move up to all five as another wing spoke. But that hasn’t necessarily been the case in 2019-20, and Los Angeles have suffered considerable blows to their backcourt and wing rotation in recent weeks. With Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo and potentially Kentavious Caldwell-Pope running out of time in Orlando, the Lakers could trot a heavy dose of intimidation ball. Vogel will need to strike the right stylistic balance for LeBron to win his fourth ring.