We’re done with 4 games in the NBA Conference Finals. In the East, the surprising Boston Celtics are leading perennial Eastern Conference champions Cleveland Cavaliers 2-0; while in the west, the current NBA champions Golden State Warriors are in a dogfight with the tough-as-nails Houston Rockets 1-1.
What did we learn from the initial four skirmishes so far?
That the Celtics’ young legs can outrun the Cavs (Games 1 and 2). That the literally and figuratively green core of the Celtics has no fear, no respect for their elders in maroon and gold. That the Warriors could methodically bend the Rockets with their small-ball ‘Hamptons 5’ line-up (Game 1). That the Houston Rockets are a hungrier team, and that the Warriors have a tendency to relax at times (Game 2). That the Rockets have an equally lethal version of the small-ball team that could give the Warriors tit for tat (Game 2).
But the biggest take-away from the 4 Conference Final games is that a superman in 1 team can never outplay a team of talented, yet lesser stars. In the first 3 sorties, one team’s Superman was methodically chopped to the ground by a group of less-than-super friends, prompting the big change in Houston’s approach for Game 4.
The Cavs have arguably the greatest player in the game today. Lebron James had just embarrassed the Toronto Raptors in a 4-0 sweep in round 2 of the playoffs. They thought that they could once again make use of his singular superior skills to bend a woefully-undermanned Celtics squad.
For 2 games, they used isolation plays as their main offensive menu. To no avail. The problem with utilizing the iso play is that the other teammates have a tendency to stand still and just watch Mr Superstar fire at will. Sure, Lebron’s made 30-plus points in more than half his playoff concertos. Unfortunately, his supporting cast hasn’t been contributing much in the offensive effort. The disproportionate scoring load has made the Cavs so predictable, the defense just gangs up on him. And tires him out, little by little, until he wilts in the end. (Read: Super Team Trumps Superman in Star-Studded NBA Finals)
The same thing happened with the Rockets in Game 1 of their series. With the one-on-one skills of their main man, the incoming league MVP, James Harden, the Rockets gave him a free hand with the isolation play. Sure, he made 41 points in another virtuoso performance. Unfortunately, the supporting cast could not deliver as well.
Having seen their iso’s unravel, having seen how the Cavs lost twice -miserably – on account of their over-reliance on the iso, the Rockets injected more ball movement, more speed, more aggressiveness, more team participation in Game 2. The iso was used to disguise their drive-and-draw, hence getting more scoring from their other teammates. Harden still scored a team-high 27 points, but it was the balanced scoring that had Eric Gordon also with 27, PJ Tucker with 22, Trevor Ariza with 19, that eventually led to the blowout win. Clearly, it was the supplementary scoring that made the big difference in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
Basketball is after all a team sport. A team cannot be dependent on only one player to win a game. It needs the rest of the team, on both ends of the court, and even off the court, to emerge victorious. This is a lesson we have learned from long, long ago. It is a lesson we must not forget.
Expect some adjustments in the Cavs’ offensive patterns in the next games to be held in Cleveland. Expect the Rockets to have a good offensive balance from hereon. I still foresee a good fight to be had in these two NBA Conference Finales.