Can a team win a title in today's NBA with an uptempo style and/or, more importantly, without a strong half-court game to fall back on?
The Oklahoma City Thunder would certainly like to know, as would the Miami Heat.
Both of this year's conference-finals series pit a younger team (i.e. the Thunder and the Heat) that prefers to get out and run against an older team with a championship pedigree (i.e. the San Antonio Spurs and the Boston Celtics) that's capable of playing fast or slow, thanks to a cast of star elder statesmen assembled around a less time-ravaged point guard.
In both cases, it's the younger, faster squads that have fans, media folks and (probably) the league pulling for them, as much for the names on the marquee (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for OKC, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade for Miami) as for how these teams prefer to play.
Yet, if history is any guide, the NBA Finals may well come down to a geriatric jaunt between the Spurs and the Celtics, with Tony Parker and Rajon Rondo hoping to keep their respective casts of basketball dinosaurs from going Cretaceous on the court.
But why does it matter? Why should teams that can/do play a slower, more deliberate style succeed in the postseason more often than teams with younger legs and a desire to use them?
In short, it's all about pace. Talking heads always like to point out that the postseason is conducive to a slower, more deliberate and much more defensive-minded style of play, which ultimately puts a premium on possessions.
The stats certainly bear this out. According to NBAStuffer.com, the league average for possessions during the playoffs currently sits at 88.8 per game, a drop of 2.4 per game from the 91.2-possession pace from across the league during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 regular season. The difference in last year's numbers (92.1 during the regular season, 87.8 during the postseason) was even more pronounced, and was similarly so (93.1 regular, 90.5 post) the year before that.
A difference of between two and four possessions per game might not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, until you consider that this decline in pace is typically accompanied by a similar swoon in offensive efficiency. This year, it's a difference of 2.5 points per 100 possessions. Last year, it was a more modest spread of 1.3.
All of this suggests that teams typically don't get as many looks at the basket in the playoffs and, on top of that, don't do as much with those looks as they normally would.
Of course, much of this disparity might just as well be chalked up to tougher competition on a nightly basis, stronger defensive play and the pressure of competing for a championship.
Know Your Enemy
But that's precisely the point. The postseason is an entirely different animal than the regular season. There are no cupcakes to beat up on, and a team's own strengths and weaknesses are more thoroughly scouted and accounted for over the course of a best-of-seven series than they would be if the opponent were different each time out.
Aside from breeding contempt, that sort of familiarity tends to limit the mistakes and easy opportunities on which teams like the Thunder, the Heat and the Phoenix Suns of yore not only thrive, but also depend. Extra time between games, combined with additional tape from regular-season and playoff games, affords teams the leeway to make necessary adjustments.
And sometimes, it doesn't even require a day off.
Just look back at Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday night. The Spurs looked disheveled from their weeklong break after sweeping the Clippers. They turned the ball over 14 times in the first half, and though they gave it away just twice in the third quarter, their deficit ballooned to nine by start of the fourth.
All the while, the Thunder, with their long arms and young legs, looked ready to run the Spurs right out of the AT&T Center, even though San Antonio is no slouch when it comes to the fast break.
But then, San Antonio took care of the ball and, in turn, took control of the game. Rather than trying to keep up with the Thunder's blistering pace, the Spurs opted to execute in the half court, thereby opening up better shots for themselves and limiting OKC's chances to get out and run.
Without that option, the Thunder wilted in the fourth quarter. Without a player capable of producing points down low, OKC turned to Durant, Westbrook and James Harden to jack up perimeter jump shots and try to force the issue on the fast break whenever possible.
The result? OKC's Big Three shot 22-of-57 and combined for 10 of the team's 13 turnovers. They outran the surprisingly speedy Spurs in transition, 17-8, but were crushed in the paint, 50-26.
Easy Does It
Of course, Durant, Westbrook and Harden have the speed, athleticism and skill sets to get to the cup whenever they want, even in the half court. But doing so becomes a particular chore when there isn't at least one big man who demands attention on that end of the floor, or there aren't shooters on the perimeter whose defenders must stick to them.
As such, it's imperative for the Thunder to get out in transition, to put their youthful exuberance to its best possible use. They lack the personnel and the discipline to thrive in a slower game and, therefore, must play to their strengths as a means of covering up their shortcomings.
Meanwhile, the Spurs, like most teams with title greatness written all over them, have the versatility to succeed in either setting. Because of that, they're able to neutralize the advantages inherent in just about any opponent they play. If their opponents like to run, they'll slow it down and vice versa.
And the slower the pace—and the better-equipped a team is to play at said slower pace—the less likely a team like the Spurs is to give away possessions via turnovers. According to TeamRankings.com, San Antonio ranked third in the NBA in turnovers during the regular season, second in turnovers per possession and second in turnovers per offensive play.
Handle With Care
On the other hand, the Thunder (28th, 26th and 26th, respectively), the Heat (20th, 21st and 20th, respectively) and the Celtics (17th, 20th and 25th, respectively) all ranked among the most careless teams in the NBA this season.
That's no good for the playoffs, wherein, again, fewer possessions leave an even smaller margin for error, and each turnover becomes even more costly.
Especially on the fast break, in which snap judgments made on the run often lead to miscues, be they bad passes, sloppy dribbles or offensive fouls. Pushing the pace, then, may be the quickest way to get the ball to the basket, but it's not always the most efficient.
Not in today's game, anyway, wherein the flash and dash of the Showtime Lakers has been replaced by the defensive strength and exacting half-court execution that made Michael Jordan's Bulls, the Kobe-Shaq Lakers and, well, the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich Spurs so successful.
To put it in children's-tale terms, it's not so much that the hare gets cocky while out ahead of the tortoise, but that he misses his mark on some occasions and trips over his own feet on others.
So the Thunder can run, run, run all they want through the West. The Heat can try the same in the East, and the C's just might follow.
But, when it comes to winning it all, it's the discipline, the versatility and the execution of a well-coached team like the Spurs that matters more than the glitz and glamour of running and gunning.
And if a team like the Spurs can dabble in that, too, then all the better for its pursuit of jewelry.
That may all change in the years to come, what with the rise of so many great point guards, the decline of the back-to-the-basket big man and the tweaking of the rules to favor perimeter play.
For now, though, less is more.