In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat guard Ray Allen was the hero of the game, nailing four triples -- all in the second half -- en route to a 12-point victory.
The most impressive part of those four makes, though, wasn't just Allen:
The 14-second mark of the above video shows the play leading to the second of Allen's four threes. It was perhaps the most important of the bunch: Miami had climbed its way back into the game after being down double digits at one point, building a five-point lead and looking for more. With over six minutes left in the game, the shot wasn't necessarily the dagger, but it sure felt close.
What's interesting, though, is that the biggest play here wasn't the shot by Allen. Rather, it's the strip of the ball by Dwyane Wade that led to the transition play, ultimately ending in an Allen three. Without the read by Wade to streak in and poke the ball away, the Heat never would have exploded onto their patented fast break and found the NBA's greatest three-point shooter.
The above play is reminiscent of what we've seen from the four conference finalists: quality defensive play leading to fast break points. It's what San Antonio emphasized to get back into their series with Oklahoma City in Game 5, and the most electric part of OKC's effort to storm back to make the West finals somewhat interesting (remember Westbrook's five steals at home?). More specifically, though, it was the wing defense that led to so many of these terrific, momentum-shifting plays in series that will eventually lead to the Finals.
If you're a Portland Trail Blazers fan, that has to make you grin.
There are a multitude of things that Portland's roster falls short on: the bench, lack of playoff experience, inconsistent team defense, a sink-or-swim offense if LaMarcus Aldridge isn't rolling, etc. But if we as Blazers followers can learn anything from each conference championship, it's that wing defense is critical to a team's on-court success.
Portland just happens to have a couple solid ones too.
In the first round against the Houston Rockets, the world was reintroduced to the defense of Wesley Matthews -- a guy that can, when things are going right, match the bullying of an offensive player (i.e. James Harden). His athleticism as a shooting guard allows Matthews to scamper around the court around screens in the lane, yet his strength gives him the opportunity to body up his man on the block.
If Matthews is the thunder, then Nicolas Batum is most certainly the lighting in this wing defense duo. This was shown in particular in the conference semfinals, when Batum was switched onto Tony Parker in the latter half of Game 3. For the following minutes of that one, as well as the win in Game 4, Batum did a much better job of defending Parker. Sure, he knew Parker's tendencies from their ongoing days on the French National Team, but it was his length and quickness at his size that bothered Parker the most.
These aspects in defenders, from strength and size to length and quickness, are all things that certain players of the final four resemble. Miami and San Antonio seem to have these player traits smashed into LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, respectively. Indiana has long been known for its defensive prowess, led by Paul George but with contributions from a guy like Lance Stephenson being a pest on the wing. And in Oklahoma City, where their normal wing defender (Thabo Sefolosha) was pushed out of the rotation for bad play, the defense was reinvigorated by Russell Westbrook.
In Matthews' and Batum's case, there are still certainly some flaws in their overall games. Namely, inconsistencies on the offensive end and occasionally disappearing in games (Batum is notorious for that one) are oft-mentioned as criticisms of those guys. What you rarely get, though, are major lapses on the defensive end. It's a part of each of Matthews' and Batum's game that is increasingly less dependent on their offensive performance.
It's worth pointing out too that even if Matthews and Batum have strong defensive performances, there are still concerns defensively in the backcourt as a whole. The defensive struggles of Damian Lillard are well-documented, and it's still up in the air as to what the backup guard positions have in store (if Mo Williams is any indication, that might also be an uphill battle). What Wes and Nic showed in the postseason, though, is that when they're playing at a high level defensively you can often hide under-performers to a certain extent. That's a huge luxury, especially in the postseason.
Teams that make it to a championship level may have guards that make a living on penetrating to the basket, much like the Blazers dealt with in the conference semifinals. Sometimes, like Portland saw against Houston, teams may have swing players that shoot a high percentage or have some size. Either way, of the variety of things to take away from the Conference finals, it's that a wing defender can have a massive impact. The fact that Portland has a couple above-average ones on their roster is a major plus.
After all, those are the guys that initiate the daggers.