What to watch for in the NBA Conference Finals

New Orleans Pelicans head coach Monty Williams – who won a gold medal as a player for USA Basketball and is now an assistant coach on the Men’s National Team – offered some tips last week on what young players should watch for during the NBA conference finals. With a few games in the books, Williams talked to us about what’s transpired and what young players can look for.

Heat-Pacers

The biggest difference between the Pacers’ Game 1 win and Game 2 loss, said Williams, was balance. “They didn’t have as much balance (Tuesday night) as they had in Game 1,” he said. “Paul George struggled a great part of the game and that threw them off offensively. They came out in Game 1 and had such an outburst offensively, especially from the three-point line, which is not something that Indiana’s known for. Lance Stephenson was really good for most of the game, then down the stretch wasn’t able to do the same things he did the first 40 minutes of the game. Roy Hibbert was effective on the boards but didn’t have a huge impact scoring. When David West got poked in the eye and went out at the four-minute mark, Miami was able to take advantage of that and go on a bit of a tear between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, being able to close out the game. Indiana had some costly turnovers down the stretch that really ignited Miami.”

James and Wade were the story in Game 2. Williams noted James’ baseline jump shot late in the fourth quarter as a pivotal play, along with Wade’s ability to help out in the paint.

“Wade was tremendous,” he said. “He was knocking down floaters, knocking down jump shots. Miami did enough to close it out with their two stars – but they did get help. Chris Andersen has been big on the boards. Udonis Haslem has been tough against Hibbert. His defensive mentality is just what they need.”

Chris Bosh hasn’t played extremely well, Williams said, but he remains a scoring threat – especially when so much attention is placed on James and Wade. “Bosh knocked down the one three from the corner and that was a huge shot. LeBron penetrated to the basket, Hibbert helped off of Bosh and he was in the corner and knocked down that three.”

As far as a teaching moment for young players, Williams mentioned a play that hammers home the important lesson of always staying with a play. 

“It was a play where LeBron stole the ball, I think from George Hill, and he took off for what seemed like an easy layup,” said Williams. “Paul George runs him down and defends the layup. But after LeBron misses it, nobody from Indiana was there to get the rebound, and Wade was there to dunk the ball. So Miami got two chances to score before Indiana even had a chance to rebound the ball.

“Your coaches teach you from day one in high school, and even before that, that you always get back in transition. You never know what can happen, and if a guy misses a layup, you need to get that defensive rebound or the other team will get an easy score. I thought that was really a big play to really shut Indiana out from having as chance to win the game.”

Spurs-Thunder

Last week, Williams talked about how critical the injury factor was for both teams, not knowing if San Antonio’s Tony Parker or Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka would be 100 percent healthy. Parker played in Game 1 and was a big factor, but it appears Ibaka is out for the series. As previously noted, that hammers home the importance of the thunder’s bench.

“If you’re a bench guy, you always have to prepare like your name’s going to be called to play a big role,” Williams said. “And that’s a tough thing to do, to mentally get yourself going every day. It’s tough in the NBA when you’ve got an 82-game season. If you’re blessed to make the playoffs and you’re a role guy, you never know when you may have to take on more responsibility. So your off-the-court work in the weight room is so important, your video work with your coaches, personal development, game development is huge. Somebody could go down and you could be a guy playing 10-15 minutes a game, thrust into playing a different role. All of a sudden, you’re playing 25-30 minutes a game and playing a big role for your team.”

While OKC must overcome the loss of a key player, Ibaka’s injury raises a concern for the Spurs as well: They can’t get overconfident.

“From San Antonio’s perspective, playing the Thunder without Ibaka, you can’t approach it that way,” said Williams. “They have to approach things as if the opponent is at full strength. That’s just the way you’re taught in the NBA – no matter who they line up with, they’re still going to be at full strength and you always have to anticipate that somebody off that bench can have a big night. So you never let your guard down. If you’re San Antonio, I’m pretty sure that’s what Pop (coach Gregg Popovich) has preached to them.

“Ibaka’s not playing but Nick Collison can have a big game, Steven Adams can have a big game. They can go small and really change the game up. Put Durant at the four, which they’ve done. So they’ve got to be prepared for everything.”

Popovich knows from experience that a bench player can spark the opposition. Williams recalled a few years back when the Spurs had to call on veteran Steve Kerr off the bench.

“San Antonio was getting smacked by Dallas,” Williams recalled. “Pop put Kerr in the game and he knocks down a bunch of threes and they win the game and go on to win a championship. Steve will be the first one to tell you that would not have happened if he would have pouted and complained about the coach and wanted off the team. He just continued to work on his game, and when his name was called he was ready.”

Still, it was clear after Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals that San Antonio was able to take advantage of Ibaka’s absence. “Without Ibaka out there, Tim Duncan was just scoring bucket after bucket inside,” said Williams. “That’s not the typical rhythm of the game against the Thunder. The Spurs can score in the paint. But it’s usually off of Tony Parker’s penetration and Manu Ginobli’s penetration. But Tim was scoring bucket after bucket on that left block, and it just seemed like it was easy without Ibaka out there. That opened up all the threes, and then Ginobli down the stretch. When OKC tried to close it out, he just made play after play after play. That’s the beauty of having someone like Manu, who can come off your bench to give you 15-20 points a night.”

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