One of the great perks of coaching college basketball is getting tickets to the NCAA Final Four. For three days, the host city lives and breathes college basketball – as San Antonio was lucky enough to do this year. I went for each of the eight years I was coaching. I watched Keith Smart’s game winning shot against Syracuse in New Orleans, saw Duke upset a supposedly unbeatable UNLV team in Indianapolis, and witnessed Chris Weber call a time-out his team didn’t have, also in New Orleans.
Like all of March Madness, each game in the NCAA Final Four is one-and-done. (Something it has in common with many top NBA prospects.) And the entire Final Four is completed in 72 hours.
The NBA Final Four is different. It can be spread over several weeks, with several days between games. It is also spread over four cities: this year Boston, Cleveland, Houston and Oakland. (Side note – no team from New York, Chicago or Los Angeles even made the playoffs this year.)
Of course, the big difference between the pro and college Final Fours is that the professional version is not one-and-done. If it was, Golden State would have already won the West. While many pronounced the Warriors as certain winners of the series after their Game 1 win in Houston, the Rockets’ showing in Game 2 shifted the series.
The narrative after Game 1 was that the Rockets’ iso ball could never succeed against a team as good as the Warriors. The Rockets proclaimed both before and after Game 2 that, like Popeye, I am what I am and we don’t change what we do. My view is different – the Rockets changed their approach in Game 2.
While they continued to play a great deal of iso ball, the Rockets did so much quicker. Unlike the infuriating James Harden or Chris Paul dribbling exhibitions from Game 1, once the Game 2 Rockets created the match-up they wanted, they immediately attacked. This also led to worse spacing on D by the Warriors, which in turn led to the Rockets’ role players receiving the ball with both time and room to do something other than fling the ball up to beat the shot clock. This led to those role players, Gordon, Tucker and Ariza in particular, having much more effective games.
The Rockets defense also improved. By aggressively switching all off-ball screens and exchanges, they were able to deny the Splash Brothers’ many catch-and-shoot threes. As a result, while Steph Curry was heavily involved at both ends of the court, Klay Thompson almost disappeared. On defense, he rarely covered the Rockets’ main ball handler (or got switched off of whoever it was). On offense, he only took 11 shots and was -24 in 37 minutes. He and Curry combined for 10 for 30 from the floor. The W’s will not win many games with that production from their two All-Star guards.
- While all the talk after Game 1 was the Rockets’ iso-ball, it seemed to me that the Warriors did much of the same in Game 2. Kevin Durant scored most of his points on one-on-one moves, not in the flow of any offense.
- Did anyone else notice that Draymond Green had the devil of a line on Wednesday night? 6 points, 6 boards, 6 assists.
- I haven’t mentioned the Eastern Conference, which has a drama all its own. As a life-long Lakers fan, I feel like I need a shower after each game in which I root for the Celtics. But they are a likeable, hard-playing bunch, with a likeable, possibly brilliant young coach. After typing that, I feel like I need to go buy a new keyboard.
- Of course, as has been true for the past decade, the real drama surrounds LeBron James. His amazing first quarter Tuesday night reminded me of his first quarter for the Miami Heat in Game Five of the 2014 Finals against the Beautiful Game Spurs. With the same outcome. No one since Wilt could keep up that pace for four quarters, and LeBron did not.
- Another similarity between 2014 and this year is that LeBron, with all of his brilliance, is again carrying an aging team. Just as at the end of the 2014 season, LeBron will be a free agent. Teams with cap space are hoping the Celtics close out the Cavaliers quickly, and that LeBron makes the same decision this off-season as he did after the Spurs dismantled the Heat.