In a largely unsurprising fashion, the top two seeds from each conference comprise the final four teams remaining in the NBA playoffs – the Spurs, the Thunder, the Heat, and the Pacers. And as always, the other 26 teams should be playing close attention, because watching the best of the best is a free crash course on what it takes to be successful deep into May.
This includes our precious Portland Trail Blazers, who valiantly made the second round, then were completely outclassed by the Spurs. These Spurs also just happen to be one of the four remaining teams. A huge component of the Spurs’ easy series victory was their largely stifling defense, which limited the Blazers to a meager 95.4 points a game.
While it is worrying that the Blazers could only put up 95 points a game against the Spurs, during the regular season, the team maintained an offensive rating (average points per 100 possessions) of 111.2. This was good for second in the league, and has me not overly concerned about the team’s offense going forward. No, the lesson the Blazers need to take from these last four remaining teams centers around defense.
Each of the four teams currently playing in the Conference Finals belong in the upper echelon of defensive teams. The Pacers ranked first in the league, the Spurs third, and the Thunder sixth. The Heat– the slackers of the group– were only ranked 11th, but they were coasting through the regular season, and turned on the stifling defense when necessary.
I have touched on the point before, but to have a deep playoff run, the Blazers simply must improve on the defensive side of the ball. Having a powerhouse offense is nice, but look how far it got the team this year – a second round slaughter. A stingy defense is an absolute necessity in today’s NBA.
Finishing better than would have been expected, the Blazers were actually tied for 16th in the regular season for defensive efficiency. In practical terms, this means that they were barely worse than average, which is a huge improvement from their ranking of 26th last season. Give credit where credit is due – the team as a whole, coaches and players both, jumped by a full 10 spots in defensive rankings.
This is a significant jump, and should be commended – but it is still not enough. There are no hard and fast lines to draw (e.g.: a defensive ranking of X guarantees playoff success), but I think a reasonable goal for the Blazers to shoot for is a top-10 defense. A top-10 defense paired with an elite offense should give the Blazers a real chance to make a deep run, and is, at least in my eyes, an attainable goal.
I say this because defense in the modern NBA is completely centered on team defense. With hybrid zones now allowed, having a solid defensive scheme, rather than relying on individual players’ defensive prowess is what breeds success. The Blazers team speed is rather low, and isolation defense is rather average across the board. Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews have their moments as individual defenders, but as blasphemous as it is, I find their individual defense a tad overrated (but I must acknowledge Matthews’ Herculean efforts against James Harden in the first round).
The team would be far better served by developing a cohesive defense system predicated on discipline and positioning. These systems can work around individual players’ limitations, and put players in chances to succeed.
It’s easy for me to sit here and say this, but if the change has to happen, it has to start at the top with Head Coach Terry Stotts. I have thus far been unimpressed with his defensive schemes, but it would just be silly to not be impressed by his ability to take the team from a defensive ranking of 26th to 16th in only one year. This gives me hope for the future – ideally he can continue the trend of improvement.
An often overlooked fact is that NBA coaches improve, just like players do. They are always learning new things and developing, and I hope to see this development from Stotts. If he can maintain the Blazers’ offense at elite levels, and coach the team into a top-10 defense, this team has a real chance of making some noise. Without a sound defense, though, this goal will be nearly impossible to reach.