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Can these defensive aces carry their offensive growth into the playoffs?

Julian Catalfo / theScore

There's an old saying about how NBA basketball changes in the spring. Regular-season basketball, it's been said, is about strengths. Playoff basketball is about weaknesses.

In a best-of-seven series, extensive preparation and repetition can expose the tiniest cracks in a team's facade and widen them until the foundation crumbles. The longer the postseason goes on, the harder it gets to hide those soft spots. And because every team has flaws, the playoffs become a test of which team's weapons are best equipped to exploit the vulnerabilities of others and overcome their own.

Certain players always sit at the center of this tactical tug-of-war. One of the most interesting and important archetypes is the defensive ace with an unreliable jumper and a generally spotty offensive skill set.

Players who fit that description usually have important and consistent regular-season roles, but things shift when playoff opponents get more intentional about funneling the ball into their hands. Suddenly, a spotlight is trained on them, and it can expose their limitations so thoroughly that even All-Defensive-caliber play at the other end isn't enough to keep them on the floor in high leverage. Just ask the 76ers and Matisse Thybulle.

Or think back to last year when Josh Okogie played sterling point-of-attack defense for a Suns team that desperately needed it. He even shot a borderline-respectable 34% from 3-point range (easily a career best) during the regular season. Okogie looked like he might fill the fifth starter role on a top-heavy contender that lacked obvious alternatives. But he went 2-for-14 from deep in the playoffs and got schemed into the extreme liability zone, which included the Nuggets stashing Nikola Jokic on him with no consequences in the second round. Phoenix eventually had to shelve him in favor of defensively dubious shooting specialist Landry Shamet.

The Suns preempted their Okogie dilemma this season by acquiring Royce O'Neal. However, plenty of other players project as defense-first playoff X-factors - with varying levels of offensive competency - for teams with aspirations of playing beyond April. One of them found himself at the center of this same conundrum last year.

Isaac Okoro is the best perimeter defender on the Cavaliers, a strong and agile wing with terrific instincts. He also garners no respect as a jump-shooter (despite hitting 39% of his threes this season) and has limited utility as an on-ball creator. Okoro was the only Cav who could trouble the Knicks' Jalen Brunson in last year's first round. Still, when he played, New York's ability to help all the way off of him crippled Cleveland's offense because he shot 31% on a diet of exclusively wide-open corner threes.

The Cavs surrendered just 91.3 points per 100 possessions with Okoro on the floor in the series, 20.1 fewer than with him on the bench. But they only scored 95.2, so they bumped him from their starting lineup after two games.

Okoro is a different player this year. He's gotten even better defensively and, crucially, become a much more polished and confident offensive player. His career-best 3-point mark includes him shooting a hugely encouraging 38% from above the break. That's a sample of just 70 attempts, but it blows away his previous career average of 27%. Okoro has also more than doubled his rate of drives per game from last season, showing far more decisiveness and fluidity in attacking off the catch and going at weaker defenders in isolation.


This year's Cavs have more options on the wing, including a better-fitting fifth starter in Max Strus, but Okoro remains a massive swing player for them given the gulf between him and their next-best perimeter defender, probably Evan Mobley. And while Mobley's as good at defending in space as one could ask of a big man, you don't necessarily want to rely on him or Strus as primary options against elite shot-creators.

With Cleveland showing more willingness this season to close games with only one of their big men on the floor, Okoro can factor into those closing lineups if he keeps contributing like this offensively. That would go a long way toward helping the team wash away the bitter taste of last year's five-game flameout.


Over in the Western Conference, Herb Jones has been by far the biggest driving force behind a Pelicans defense that has improbably ranked in or around the top five all season, putting the team in position to nab a top-six seed.

In a starting lineup without any other high-end defenders, it's incumbent on Jones and his 7-foot wingspan to put out fires at all three levels. That could mean blanketing a ball-handler at the point of attack, deterring paint penetration with an octopus-armed swipe at the nail, veer-switching to intercept a pocket pass to a rolling big man, or making a timely back-line rotation to turn away a driver at the rim.

He's better than just about anyone in the league at making those help plays in the middle of the floor and then recovering with screaming closeouts to 3-point shooters who were fooled into thinking they were open.

For the second straight season, poor opponent outside shooting has powered the Pelicans' defensive success. They've allowed the league's second-lowest 3-point percentage this season after allowing the lowest a year ago. A lot of that is luck, sure, but at least some of it should probably be credited to Jones, who holds opponents to 30.7% (5.8 percentage points below their average) when he contests their threes, per NBA Advanced Stats.

Jones is the most indispensable piece of the Pelicans' defensive identity, so they need him to play big minutes in the playoffs. Fortunately, he's also shown a ton of offensive growth this season, drilling his open threes (47% from the corners), driving closeouts, making emphatic stampede cuts, and dishing crafty lay-down passes in traffic. Jones thrives in transition and has become a much stronger at-rim finisher.


Jones has always been an adept cutter, but he's never been nearly this well-rounded offensively. During Brandon Ingram's recent absence, New Orleans has even dabbled in the odd Point Herb possession. The fact he's put together a 50/42/87 shooting split as one of the NBA's five best defenders hasn't gotten enough attention.

The extent to which that translates to the postseason will have a big say in how much noise the Pelicans can make. They start two other non-shooters (Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas), so spacing will be at a premium. And despite his impressive percentages, opposing defenses will likely dare Jones to hit open threes and live with the result if it means loading up to stop Williamson's drives.


To some extent, this also applies to Jones' teammate, Dyson Daniels, who's a lesser shooter and a slightly less versatile defender but is every bit as disruptive at the point of attack. If both of those guys can be viable offensively, the Pelicans' defense might stay good enough to propel them on a deep run.


There should be no doubts about the staying power of the Timberwolves' league-best defense since nearly everyone in their rotation can guard at a high level. But outside of Rudy Gobert, none of those defenders is as important as Jaden McDaniels, and none better represents the tricky balance Minnesota needs to strike between maintaining that ferocious defense and remaining dangerous at the offensive end, where the team ranks a pedestrian 16th.

This term gets thrown around too liberally these days, but McDaniels genuinely is a defensive unicorn: a 6-foot-9 elite secondary rim-protector who's also one of the 10 best screen navigators and point-of-attack stoppers in the game. It's remarkable how many actions he can blow up on a given possession.


Offensively, it's more of a mixed bag. McDaniels' 3-point percentage has oscillated throughout his four-year career, from 36% to 32% to 40% to 33% this season - all on a comparably low volume of mainly stationary attempts. While he's shown flashes of dribble-drive juice, an improved handle, and secondary playmaking chops, he hasn't grown in those areas as much as one might've hoped. He's shooting 56% on his drives, up from 48% last year, but his pick-and-roll feel hasn't materialized, and a lot of his attempts at standstill creation are adventurous in the worst way.


The flashes remain tantalizing, though, and McDaniels has developed such great touch around the hoop (74th percentile at the rim, 95th percentile from floater range) that he'll usually be a threat when he has a gap to attack. How much offensive utility the Wolves can or should try to mine from him beyond spot-ups and impromptu cuts remains an open question.

McDaniels showed out in Minnesota's 2022 first-round series against Memphis. However, we didn't get to see how his evolving strengths and limitations would play in last year's playoffs because he broke his hand when he punched a wall in frustration during the final game of the regular season. What will this year bring? The answer could have major implications for the West playoff bracket.


A few rungs down the conference standings, Dallas is entering the postseason as the league's hottest team.

Dante Exum and Derrick Jones Jr. are by far the best perimeter defenders on the Mavericks, and Dallas needs all the perimeter defense it can get. Those two have also shot the 3-ball pretty well (in Exum's case, exceptionally well) on the open looks Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving have fed them. Jones Jr. is at 34% on more than three attempts per game, the highest percentage and volume of his career. Exum, who rebuilt his jumper overseas during a two-year NBA hiatus, is at 49%, raising his career 3-point percentage from 31% to 34% despite just two attempts per game.

The playoffs will challenge them to prove how real those shooting improvements are. The hope is that both guys can survive on the strength of other skills even if the shots stop going in. Jones Jr. is an elite slasher and above-the-rim finisher who can punish defenders who stunt or tag off him, cutting behind the help to flush down lobs from Doncic or Dallas' short-rolling bigs. Exum is a quality ball-handler and passer, which means he can work as a connective playmaker and extend advantages when Doncic or Irving bend defenses out of shape, which includes rolling out of ball screens and making hay in four-on-three scenarios.

That last point is particularly pertinent because opponents usually stash their weakest defender on Exum, making him an even more important inverted screening partner for Doncic than Irving is. Since Irving will always draw the opponents' second-best defender, there's less downside for a defense in switching his two-man actions with Doncic. Conversely, having Exum set those ball screens leaves the defense with the difficult choice of either switching itself into a terrible matchup or sending two to the ball and letting Exum go to work with a man advantage.


The Mavs have a 123.6 offensive rating and plus-15.4 net rating with Doncic and Exum on the floor, the team's most productive tandem with at least 500 minutes played.

Consider Gary Payton II's vital role for the title-winning 2022 Warriors despite his offensive limitations. He was able to do so partly because his athleticism allowed him to operate as a 6-foot-2 dive man but mostly because Steph Curry's offensive brilliance enabled lineup configurations that tilted heavily toward defense. Those Warriors could play as many as three non-shooters (Payton, Draymond Green, and Kevon Looney) at the same time and still magically find their way to high-value shots because of Curry's defense-bending gravity. That doesn't feel like a formula that can work for the Cavs, Pelicans, or Wolves. But it might apply to a team with a comparable (albeit stylistically antithetical) offensive force in Doncic.

Every year, it becomes more difficult for a one-way player to survive in the playoffs, regardless of which end they excel at. These players shed that label with how well they've performed offensively during this regular season, but the postseason is a different animal; it has a way of laying every little weakness bare.

These players will see cross-matches and induce gap coverages. They may have to shoot the ball more than they're used to in order to keep defenses honest. Given how much their teams rely on them defensively, a lot is riding on whether they can mask their offensive weaknesses or prove that they've turned those weaknesses into strengths.

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