The phrase ‘you’re only as strong as your weakest link’ is applied to an assortment of contexts. Jay-Z’s ‘if everybody in your clique is rich your clique is rugged. Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches’ line echoes that sentiment. It also has been a running theme throughout the entirety of these NBA playoffs. I’ve heard many people describe playoff basketball as ‘it’s not about what you (as a team or player) do well, it’s about how well you can mask what you can’t do well.’ This year’s postseason has been defined by that notion.

This was wholly on display in the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks. Milwaukee’s defensive tendencies typically include having their centers (Brook Lopez or Bobby Portis Jr.) chill back in the paint to protect the rim while the player guarding the ball handler goes over the pick and roll ball screen to not allow a player to bomb away from three. In their first-round matchup against the Miami Heat, they were largely able to get by since the Heat lacked perimeter shooting outside of Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. Kevin Durant was able to torch the Bucks’ strategy but the lack of a healthy Kyrie Irving and James Harden to add the extra scoring punch Brooklyn needed was enough to let the Bucks get by. 

This same assault on coach Mike Budenholzer’s ideology was on full display yet again in the Conference Finals in Game 1 at the hands of Trae Young, who delivered a 48 point, 11 rebound masterpiece on the road. If you noticed a theme watching those highlights, it’s that Young repeatedly sought out the teammate who was being defended by either Brook Lopez or Bobby Portis (mostly either Clint Capela or John Collins) and went into a pick and roll with them. From there, Young had the world in his pocket, getting any floater or pull-up three he wanted as a scorer, or lob, dump-off, or kick out to the three-point line he sought as a playmaker. The numbers back it up too. According to Synergy, Trae Young scored, assisted, or created 80(!!!) of Atlanta’s 108 points in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. That’s not a typo. Trae Young had a hand in 74% of Atlanta’s points in Game 1. That’s absurd, but not as absurd as how it was allowed to happen. When Young was defended by either Lopez or Portis, he shot 14-23 from the field. When he was defended by Giannis Antetokounmpo, that number fell off a cliff to just 3-11 from the field. The Bucks were +4 in Game 1 when Giannis was not accompanied by any of his center compatriots on the floor. The Hawks were +4 when Trae Young was on the floor with Bobby Portis and +16 in the 20 minutes Young shared with Brook Lopez. When neither was on the floor with Trae Young, the Hawks lost those 13 minutes by three points. Whether or not Mike Budenholzer can make the proper decisions and not allow Young to feast against Milwaukee’s centers will go a long way in determining the outcome of this series.

But this isn’t the first time the Hawks have exploited an opposing team’s weakness. Just last round, the Hawks were able to get Ben Simmons so far down his own head that he opted not to go up for an open dunk in the late stages of the fourth quarter of Game 7 of that series. In fact, you want to know the two shots he did make in that Game 7? One was a wide-open dunk off an assist after his teammate gathered the ball off an offensive rebound. The other was another wide-open dunk, this time after cleaning up an airball from Furkan Korkmaz. That’s it. Any confidence Simmons had in his game was completely evaporated. Simmons’ usage rate in the playoffs was a pedestrian 16.2%, according to NBA.com. That number was ninth ON HIS OWN TEAM. That’s completely inexcusable. Most possessions, Simmons was reduced to doing nothing but chilling on the dunker spot. This possession in the midst of Philly’s Game 5 collapse was the most emblematic of Simmons’ non-activity. First of all, Embiid is engaging in a two-man with Seth Curry. Curry is a very good player, but the fact that is who is getting Embiid the better looks is an indictment in and of itself. Anyway, their pick and roll get trapped, so Curry hits Embiid on the roll. Problem: Ben Simmons and his man are in the way! So Embiid kicks it out to Tobias Harris on the left corner. He gets to run off the three-point line and runs into another problem: both Simmons and Embiid and their men are in the way! So Harris has to give it back to Embiid as the Sixers’ offense is operating in a phone booth. Harris looks like he’s open for a split second, so Embiid finds him, only for Harris’ shot to get swatted out of bounds by John Collins. Simmons not being a threat in any capacity went a long way in dooming the Sixers. He wasn’t the *only* problem, but he sure was the most glaring (the Hawks hunting Seth Curry the same way the Sixers couldn’t hunt Trae Young was almost as big a problem and was the pathway that led to Kevin Huerter’s brilliant series-clinching Game 7 masterpiece). Atlanta turning a three-time All-Star, third-team all-NBA (2020) member against his own team swung the trajectory of that series and catapulted the Hawks into the conference finals.

That wasn’t the only series that had a team use its own player against them to get into the conference finals. Look no further than what the Los Angeles Clippers did to the Utah Jazz. The Jazz structured the entire defense around the rim protection of Rudy Gobert. Outside of Royce O’Neale, the Jazz lack any perimeter defender of note. Bojan Bogdanovic had his moments; Miye Oni looks like he can fit that bill one day; Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley Jr. being compromised surely did not help. But without being able to defend on the perimeter, and Rudy Gobert’s preference, necessity to protect the paint rather than the perimeter and inability to punish smaller defenders on the other end, Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue used all of that to his advantage by going much of the game without a center on the floor. It took an anomalous shooting half from the Clippers to erase a 25 point lead at halftime of Game 6, but the Clippers got the boost they were looking for from none other than Terance Mann

The Clippers had no choice but to give up something: either layups or threes from the likes of Terance Mann and Patrick Beverley. There’s are various reasons for that. Rudy Gobert just not being as comfortable defending the perimeter as he is in the paint is one. The Jazz’s roster didn’t help matters either because they don’t have the kind of forward that can upsize into being a small-ball center. Quin Snyder could’ve had Gobert guard someone else. But maybe the worst of all is the ineffectiveness of Rudy Gobert as an offensive player. The Clippers were willing to switch everything in order to limit the number of threes the Jazz could get. Sometimes that meant switching a guard like Reggie Jackson or Terance Mann onto Gobert, but that didn’t really matter. The Jazz wouldn’t even really look to get Gobert the ball in those situations, and who could blame them. In the regular season, the Jazz generated 0.57 points per possession on 28 Rudy Gobert post-ups, according to tracking data from Synergy via NBA.com. Only seven players put up worse numbers: JaVale McGee, Harry Giles III, Zach LaVine, Bismack Biyombo, Michael Porter Jr., Larry Nance Jr., and Isaiah Roby. That’s horribly bad. Do you want to know how many times Gobert posted up in 11 playoff games? Once. Yeah. Oof. Now, there are other ways to punish a small defense, with one of those methods being on the glass. To Gobert’s credit, he did average the third-most offensive rebounds per game in the entire playoffs at 3.9 per game, but that’s about the only tool Gobert has in the toolshed to do so. And to be fair to Gobert, the Clippers pulled the same stunt on Kristaps Porzingis earlier in the playoffs (Porzingis was only able to generate 0.82 points per possession on his post-ups against the Clippers). But that doesn’t make it any less damning on Gobert’s part nor impressive on the Clippers for being able to take him away and ruin the integrity of Utah’s entire defensive structure.

The playoffs are much like the words echoed by the great Mobb Deep: only the strong survive. Whatever a team’s weakness is, it will be tested. If your team can withstand it, your chances of advancing deep are very good. If not, well, then I hear Cancun is a great place to visit this time of year. Look no further than this year’s playoffs if you need proof.

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