It’s been an unusual NBA playoffs.
Home-court advantage hasn’t mattered at all: Fully half of the home-court underdogs have ended up pulling the upset and winning the series. The No. 1 overall seed Milwaukee Bucks lost in the first round in the East, as did the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the West.
So as we have a No. 1 vs. No. 8 NBA Finals, we’ve seen that regular season success hasn’t mattered much in predicting the winners. Instead, it’s come down to other factors — factors that the Utah Jazz could try to emulate as they try to become championship contenders themselves.
And Jazz CEO Danny Ainge has a keen eye on the action. “I’ve been at this so long, I’m just all about the playoffs. Like, I only see playoff basketball. I don’t really get that excited about regular season basketball as far as looking at a team,” Ainge has said. “Playoffs are fun. That’s when you get to evaluate.”
What are those lessons Ainge might have learned from these last several weeks? Here are some of my takeaways:
1. Your best player has to be as big of a threat to pass as he is to score
It’s absolutely critical that the Jazz find a lead scorer who can score efficiently while also setting up his teammates when the defense sends help.
Once again, Jimmy Butler has been brilliant: His drives are dangerous enough, thanks to his ability to draw fouls, that defenders have to come and support. At that point Butler’s been very good at kicking it to the open man — he leads the Heat in assists this playoffs with 5.7 per game, just as he did during the regular season.
Nikola Jokic, though, is one of the best NBA players ever at this. The Lakers couldn’t figure out whether to guard him with Anthony Davis or have Davis roam off-ball. Either way, L.A. was out of luck; Jokic was going to tear the smaller defender apart on the block, or take Davis away from help possibilities.
Meanwhile, those teams that fell short couldn’t find the right balance. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were a little too turnover prone. MVP Joel Embiid (not quite healthy) tried to take over games by himself, while James Harden was too pass-happy and wasn’t enough of a scoring threat. Devin Booker and Kevin Durant never really found this balance, either.
Lauri Markkanen is a great player — a great finisher (and Finnisher) — but he hasn’t figured out the distribution part of his game yet. Some of it is due to lack of experience as a ball-in-hand threat; defenses haven’t spent much time collapsing on him, due to his sudden rise. He’s young and there’s still time for him to figure it out, but he’ll either need to do so — or the Jazz will need to find a bigger on-ball threat to create those advantages.
2. Connectivity and feel across the roster
What’s gotten the Heat from the No. 8 seed to the Finals? Their ability to play together.
On the offensive end, that means clear-eyed ability to repeatedly make the right read about what the defense is doing and how to take advantage. Their role players have had an extremely good feel on when to drive, pass, or shoot, with an understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. Plays don’t just have one action (go set a screen!) but multiple wrinkles, sometimes on both sides of the floor at once. The timing is crisp. The ball rarely sticks.
On the defensive end, that means superlative communication. When one player closes out, another must help — at the right times. If a coach wants to make an adjustment in coverage, players must be ready to play that defense well, with no adaptation time. If the opponent has a weakness offensively, the defense should pick at that, walling off other, better opportunities.
The Jazz were actually quite impressive at this aspect of things this year; well, on the offensive end of the floor, at least. Coach Will Hardy got them to play with real selflessness with the ball in their hands, and most players played the right way, a secret to their success. On the defensive end, things were less promising, with the league’s 23rd-ranked defense. However, given the 19 different guys in the rotation at various points of the season, the plug-and-play aspect of this roster was pretty impressive; Hardy might have some of that Erik Spoelstra touch.
3. Can’t play just one defense
If you stick with one defense in the NBA playoffs, teams with the above two characteristics will tear you apart.
Certainly, the Utah Jazz know that, as their league-best drop-big defense was shattered to smithereens by the Rockets, Clippers and Mavericks in years past — without many adjustments as the likes of Reggie Jackson and Terrance Mann tore them apart.
But this year, the Heat have shown a masterclass in having different defensive weapons. They’ll play zone for significant periods — sometimes to hide individual defenders like Duncan Robinson, sometimes just to throw the opposing offense for a loop. They didn’t switch most of their screens in Game 1-6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, then switched a majority in a blowout Game 7. The key to this is Bam Adebayo, who can basically run most any defense with aplomb; though as Spoelstra notes, it’s hard to put together a good defense without five good defenders.
The Nuggets are bit underrated at this too, especially Nikola Jokic — I probably underestimated this facet in my MVP vote for Embiid. But Jokic can play at enough different levels of the screen, playing up, drop, or somewhere in between to make offenses at least think about their possibilities. Aaron Gordon can guard the opponents’ best wing, while confidently switching onto bigs if need be, too. The Nuggets can and do bring unexpected help.
The Jazz played with some defensive options at the end of the season, including bringing back a zone that worked better with its players after the deadline than the ones they had before it. But Walker Kessler’s versatility is pretty limited at this point — he was one of the league’s best drop defenders, but struggled in other coverages. He’s just a rookie, though, and there’s much opportunity to get better.
4. Finding and acquiring depth
The Nuggets have had a painful time trying to find their depth pieces. Their bench has been one of the worst in the NBA for much of the last three seasons, and they’ve had to rotate through a ton of possibilities. They still haven’t found a backup center they really trust, and none of Bones Hyland, Reggie Jackson, Austin Rivers, Facundo Campazzo, and so on have been suitable backup point guard replacements for Monte Morris.
In the end, they’ve found that playing Bruce Brown at point guard works best, despite not being a traditional PG. They’ve found they can get some quality minutes out of Uncle Jeff Green, even though he struggles to move laterally. And rookie Christian Braun brings enough hustle and skill to be an option. That’s all they’ve needed — no other Nugget has played even four minutes off the bench this playoff run.
The Heat, though — wow. They’ve just been able to find undrafted guys who suddenly become wildly important players. Caleb Martin, an undrafted player waived by the Hornets, almost won the Eastern Conference Finals MVP vote, for goodness sake. Max Strus, Duncan Robinson, Gabe Vincent, Haywood Highsmith all also undrafted. How?
Well, incredible scouting and player development for one. But I’ll note another aspect: all five of those players are between 26 and 28 years old. That’s exactly the prime age of NBA players. If you’re trying to compete for a championship, like the Heat are, targeting that age range, or just before it, might be best.
The Jazz have done this with a couple of scrap-heap pickups. Kris Dunn impressed last season when the Jazz picked him up at 28 years old; Simone Fontecchio is 27. The Jazz had similar success when picking up Joe Ingles (27 when he signed) or Royce O’Neale (24). But in other years, the Jazz have skewed younger with their end-of-bench players — if winning now is the priority, a bit older might help.
5. Continuity matters
Erik Spoelstra is the second-longest tenured coach in the NBA. Mike Malone is fourth.
The 26 other teams in the NBA have all selected their coach in the last four years; including the Jazz with Will Hardy’s hiring last summer.
Both teams, especially the Nuggets, had fans who wanted the departure of their coaches, but in the end ownership and management stayed with their preferred lead men. Both teams have kept their stars for at least the past four seasons, with the Nuggets having had Jokic for eight, the Heat having had Adebayo for six. The Nuggets also stuck with Jamal Murray through a two-year, nightmare injury recovery process.
It’s all paid off, so that at the key moments, everyone understands what to do and how to do it. Schemes are battle tested, adjustments are fluid.
The Jazz are very far away here. Only one player on the entire team from this date one year ago is still under contract for next season — and that player is Rudy Gay. (Free agent Jordan Clarkson may still return, but it’s not a certainty.) They have a new coach, a group of new players. To be sure, much of the NBA is in the same boat, but the Jazz can’t realistically expect a contender to come together right away.