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How Jordan Poole Can Swing The NBA Finals In Either Direction

Jordan Poole’s inaugural playoff campaign qualifies as a gigantic success. Through 16 games, the 22-year-old is averaging 18.4 points, 4.5 assists, and 3.2 rebounds on a scorching hot 67.3 percent true shooting. He’s buried 65 percent of his twos and 39.3 percent of his threes. He owns a pair of 30-point outbursts and has scored 20 or more seven times.

Many bright-eyed scorers can struggle when shrewd, savvy defenses hone in on their tendencies to expose shortcomings in the playoffs. Against a pair of top-7 defenses, the Golden State Warriors’ youngster has resembled a brilliant offensive star for long stretches this spring. Regardless of result or individual performance, these NBA Finals will not diminish his first three rounds of offensive excellence and the forward-thinking optimism they rightfully elicit.

Increasingly, though, Poole’s limitations as an on-ball defender have magnified throughout the playoffs. That stands to continue as the NBA Finals approach. How Poole navigates his newest test is absolutely a relevant storyline in the pursuit of a title; blowouts factor in, but he’s seen his minutes per game dwindle each series. At 6’4, 194, he hasn’t yet established the core strength, slippery screen navigation, or center of gravity to relent in isolation scenarios.

The Denver Nuggets’ dearth of perimeter juice failed to tax him much at all. Ja Morant found profits in the conference semifinals, but he didn’t play the final three games and the Memphis Grizzlies’ offense isn’t built on standstill creation beyond him.

The Dallas Mavericks’ trio of initiators, Luka Doncic, Jalen Brunson, and Spencer Dinwiddie, burned him for portions of each contest. In three of the five games, Poole committed at least four fouls — one of those, Game 4, saw him foul out. However, Dallas’ inability to stymie Golden State’s free-flowing ethos shrunk the magnitude of their mismatch-hunting offense; Poole still rocked to the tune of 16.5 points per game on 79 percent true shooting.

Despite each round further thrusting his defensive concerns into light, the opposition has yet to neutralize Poole and Golden State’s offense, which to this point has registered a playoff-best 116.1 offensive rating. As they both prepare for the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics, there are reasons to believe that dynamic could change. The Celtics boast the NBA’s top-ranked defense. Both defensively and collectively, Boston is in a tier of its own compared to who the Warriors have dispatched (which makes sense, this is the Finals!).

Switching is the Celtics’ base coverage. But they’re malleable, fueled by communication, active hands, and complementary skill-sets packaged into a seven-man rotation — or eight, including Payton Pritchard—- lacking many soft spots. The crispness of their switches, timeliness on peel switches, and physicality are all traits that give them a chance to frustrate Golden State’s screen-heavy offense, particularly on Pindowns, Flares and Floppy actions.

The Warriors have thrived in these playoffs by fashioning mismatches off the ball via quick-hitting, early offense sets and attacking said mismatches from there. Boston, though, excels at blotting out disadvantageous matchups, utilizing scram switches or pre-switches (switching a defender out of a screen before it’s set) to insulate players from being involved in suboptimal situations. Its defensive personnel is also just much better than any of Denver, Memphis, or Dallas’. Far fewer gaps to target exist.

As such, Poole’s offensive exploits could assume grander importance. He’s been dynamite puncturing titled defenses, but he can also operate from a standstill. His footwork, acceleration, and change of direction empower him to commandeer the offense. The playmaking has also shined.

According to Cleaning The Glass, in the 379 possessions the Warriors have played with Poole and without Stephen Curry this postseason, they’re generating a 115.3 offensive rating. He’s an elastic scorer, one who applies himself where required. That could frequently be on the ball against the Celtics, who seem designed to at least combat some of Golden State’s movement-rich approach that’s flourished through three rounds. Outside of Curry, no Warrior is knifing through an organized defense like Poole. Everyone else typically warrants a significant shift to best strike as a scorer.

Poole might be too crafty for Jaylen Brown and too shifty for Derrick White or Jayson Tatum. That’s not to imply he’s going to leave them in the dust every trip down, of course. I anticipate him causing some problems, given his athletic tools and three-level scoring chops, and potentially ease the fallout of the Warriors’ free-flowing spirit being countered.

While Boston’s offense is less daunting, it still should present issues. Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart can all create in different manners, while White is capable on a whim as well. The Celtics’ offense has fizzled out for periods the last couple rounds, though I would argue Milwaukee and Miami’s defense are a little better equipped to slow Boston than Golden State’s.

Does this mean Boston’s offense will feast going up against Golden State’s defense? Not necessarily — it’s still an excellent, cohesive, lively defense. But it’s possible there are a few more exploitable areas, especially if Poole’s offense takes on a larger scope for the Warriors.

For a stretch of the postseason, the Warriors would switch Poole’s screens, but he simply couldn’t hang and the adjustment was to hedge-and-recover. They employ a similar tactic with Curry, yet Curry’s hedge-and-recovers are much more effective. He’s stronger, quicker back to his assignment, and elevates his arms on the recovery to complicate passing windows.

If Boston is going to mismatch-hunt — something it has done throughout the playoffs — Poole could be the Seth Curry, Grayson Allen, or Max Strus of this round. He’s a phenomenal offensive talent, but the on-ball defense presents challenges during his minutes. Brown has feasted against mismatches and Smart’s also flashed a propensity to outmuscle dudes downhill. It is not hard to foresee both of those trends continuing against Poole.

The bevy of angles prevalent in this series have run through my head basically since Sunday’s Game 7 concluded. Many can be filed under the push-pull category. Whichever way the currently ambiguous pendulum swings could prove vital to the outcome of the Finals.

Poole’s versatile offensive could inject life into potentially stagnant possessions against Boston’s ironclad defense and expand his series-wide standing. His tenuous defense could just as easily catalyze a mildly rocky Celtics’ offense — featuring multifaceted ball-handlers — and diminish his series-wide standing. The latter leaves Golden State’s offense with worrisome doubts. The former is a potentially series-shifting boon to it.

This isn’t the headlining piece of what should be a fascinating battle. But it’s one that could carry considerable implications and ultimately prove a differentiator in whether the 201-22 Larry O’Brien trophy will call Beantown or the Bay its home moving forward.

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