How to Destroy Each NBA Finals Contender
Only the very best teams reach the NBA Finals, but there's always a blueprint for success against any opponent.
Some teams just don't match up well despite a wide difference in overall talent level. Other teams are vulnerable to certain strategies or do one thing poorly.
So how can you design a game plan to destroy your opponent?
It requires an examination of trends and stats and a review of the roster to exploit the biggest weaknesses.
And then there are some teams like the San Antonio Spurs who have no weaknesses. If you're playing them, just light a candle and say a prayer. If you're playing them in San Antonio, just forfeit.
But even the mightiest armor is not invulnerable. So here's how to destroy eight NBA title contenders.
New York Knicks
The New York Knicks know that good things come in threes. That's why they attempt the most in the NBA at 29 per game.
While they also make the most threes per game (10.9), their shooting percentage from downtown is just 37.7 percent, sixth in the league.
The key to stopping the Knicks is to defend the perimeter and take away open three-pointers. That and doubling Carmelo Anthony is usually enough to make the Knicks offense stagnant. Steve Novak practically refuses to shoot when faced with an effective closeout.
On the other side of the court, the Knicks' defensive schemes produce a lot of switches on screens. A successful attack on the Knicks should involve a lot of ball screens and down screens.
Exploit the switching and create mismatches.
The Knicks also get frustrated by physical play. Despite having so many veterans on the roster, New York sometimes loses its composure when an opponent makes the game a dogfight.
This was seen in games this season against the Memphis Grizzlies, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. Technical fouls rained down. If you tussle with the Knicks, you can get them complaining to the refs instead of playing basketball.
After losing Danny Granger, prospects looked dim for the Indiana Pacers, but they have banded together and responded impressively.
David West and Paul George have more than made up for the absence of Granger by each averaging more than 17 points per game. George Hill has been chipping in 14.6 a night as well.
But for all of my praise of these scorers, the Pacers still struggle mightily on offense. In terms of points scored per possession, Indiana is 21st in the league, which is worse than the Sacramento Kings.
But Indy compensates for its subpar offense with sensational D. The Pacers allow the fewest points per possession in the NBA, and they're ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies by a fair margin in that category (via ESPN).
As with any slow-paced team, the key is getting them to run. Working for odd-man breaks and points in transition will disrupt their defensive rhythm. Roy Hibbert is a ball hawk in the middle, so you'll have to clear him out if you want to score within five feet of the basket.
Only two teams have a worse shooting percentage than the Pacers, so the strategy is to rope off the paint and force them to take contested jumpers on the perimeter. Hibbert is not a huge scoring threat, but look for help defense on David West inside.
Indy is also great at home (22-5) but poor on the road (11-16), so home-court advantage is very important.
The Memphis Grizzlies like to play slow. They average the third-fewest possessions per game in the league.
They also average just 91.8 points per game, which is the lowest mark in the West by a good margin. Even if this is largely due to their slow pace, they can look lost on offense at times.
After trading Rudy Gay in late January, the Grizz promptly lost three of their next four. Gay is now averaging 20.2 points per game for the Toronto Raptors.
Their starting 2-guard, Tony Allen, averages just 8.7 points per game. Mike Conley's play at the point can be erratic. And Tayshaun Prince is now starting at small forward. It's really hard to believe he's only 32 years old.
Without Rudy Gay, this is a trio that can be given leeway to shoot from the outside. Lacking a solid scorer in their backcourt, defenses can focus on Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the middle.
The Grizz also play suffocating defense, allowing the second-fewest points per possession. And they have the best rebounding rate in the league (per ESPN). It's crucial to box Memphis out, especially on the offensive glass.
This is a team that does not respond well to an up-tempo attack, so it's important to look for buckets in transition before they set up their D.
The Chicago Bulls have a problem with their backcourt: Derrick Rose is not in it. With the former MVP still attempting to come back from knee surgery, the Bulls offense is anemic.
In terms of points scored per possession, they are 25th in the NBA. Fortunately, they also allow the fourth-fewest points per possession (ESPN).
The current backcourt—Kirk Hinrich, Richard Hamilton, Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli—gets its scoring by piecemeal. Hopefully, one of them gets hot on any given night.
But none of them have strong shooting percentages (Hinrich is the worst at 37.8 percent), and Robinson has the highest scoring average at 11.9 points per game.
The defensive focus has to be on the Bulls' stellar frontcourt of the resurgent Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah.
The guards can be challenged to knock down their jumpers. Belinelli and Robinson can be very streaky, and Hinrich has lost his shot altogether.
This team needs Derrick Rose back if they want to make noise in the playoffs, but he didn't sound very encouraging when he spoke to Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today on Feb. 13:
I'm not coming back until I'm 110 percent. Who knows when that can be? It can be within a couple of weeks. It could be next year. It could be any day. It could be any time. It's just that I'm not coming back until I'm ready.
He also talked to local reporters that day, saying: "I really don't know. I'm feeling good, but like I said, if it's where it's taking me a long time and I'm still not feeling right, I don't mind missing this year" (via Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com).
If Rose is unable to return this season, the Bulls aren't a threat to make it out of the second round anyway.
But with or without him, the secret to destroying the Bulls lies in running on them. An up-tempo attack can get them out of their comfort zone and avoid their stifling half-court defense.
They struggle to score, and opponents should pack the paint against them.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers are the deepest team in the league. Eight players on their roster average nine points or more. They also have the NBA's best point guard.
Oh, and they didn't lose a single game in the month of December.
But they've been scuffling a bit since 2013 started. At one point, they lost seven of nine games. After finishing December at 25-6, they have gone just 14-12.
So how do you beat them?
Taking care of the ball is the first step. The Clippers force more turnovers than any team in the league, so it's vital to avoid careless passes or dribbling anywhere near Chris Paul, the NBA steals king.
L.A. also has the league's fifth-worst free-throw percentage. Try to put DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin at the line whenever you can.
And this should be fairly obvious, but when you play Lob City, it's important to take away the alley-oop. Griffin's outside game is nothing special, but you better get a body on him if he heads anywhere near the rim.
This is another team you have to force outside. Griffin and Jordan get their points in the paint, so "perimeter jump shots" is the name of the game. But they have to be contested.
If you don't close out, guys like Chauncey Billups and Matt Barnes can rain down three-pointers.
The Miami Heat are the defending champions, and it sure looks like they're headed right back to the finals to defend the title.
LeBron James has been playing out of his mind lately, so you'll just have to wait and let that subside. You could double-team him all game, but he'd just burn you for a dozen assists.
The Heat are the best shooting team in the NBA, making 49.3 percent of their field goals, so it's imperative to contest every jump shot. If possible, try to smother LeBron and Dwyane Wade and force Chris Bosh and Co. to beat you.
Miami generally plays solid defense, but it is 20th in the league in scoring allowed per possession. Just put up lots of points and hope for the best.
The Heat have a fairly small lineup, so it's important to attack them inside and take the open jumpers where they come. They also struggle on the boards somewhat, especially the offensive glass, so put your rebounders in and bang away.
That being said, there just may be no stopping LeBron James.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Despite what the standings say, the Oklahoma City Thunder are the best team in the league. But they can be beat, as the Miami Heat demonstrated so convincingly last season.
Kevin Durant is probably the best pure scorer in the league along with Carmelo Anthony. Don't let him beat you. You can double-team him all game, and he still might score 30 points, but he'll drop 45 on you if you don't harass him all game long.
OKC commits the second-most turnovers per game in the league, so it's important to apply pressure. Russell Westbrook can get out of control, and trapping can be effective.
Westbrook is also prone to poor shot selection, so blanketing Durant is priority No. 1. Let Westbrook shirk his duties as point guard and put up 25 shots (he averages 18.6 field-goal attempts per game). He's only a 42.5 percent shooter, so you can take your chances.
Serge Ibaka developed a jump shot somehow, and it's important to close out on him. Fortunately, James Harden is gone, so you don't even have to worry about him.
On offense, you have to be ready to run with OKC. The Thunder put up the second-most points per possession in the league, so just try to score a whole bunch and hope that's enough. Maybe shoot some three-pointers.
San Antonio Spurs
The best advice for trying to beat the San Antonio Spurs is not to play them in San Antonio. At the AT&T Center this season, the Spurs are an unholy 22-2. Good luck.
There's really no easy way to beat the Spurs because they do everything well. Gregg Popovich makes sure of that.
Despite their aging core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, the Spurs play at a fairly fast pace, averaging the seventh-most possessions per game in the NBA.
Still, it's important to get their older guys running up and down the floor, and you have to push the ball in transition. Try going at Tiago Splitter on some pick-and-rolls as well.
The Spurs have superb ball movement, so teams that keep switching will get feasted upon. You have to avoid mismatches and stay at home on defense.
Pack the paint, pester Tony Parker to neutralize his penchant for the drive-and-kick and close out on jump shots. It's also important to crash the glass, as the Spurs are merely average on the boards.
Other than that, you just have to hope for the best.