We're in a bit of a strange dead zone period for fans of the Toronto Raptors.
The club hasn't been participating in any sort of on-court action in weeks, and yet it's still a bit too early to really get into the nuts and bolts of next month's NBA draft. We've already started to do our due diligence regarding prospect options and the like, but until the Dinos send out that press release regarding the first series of draft workouts, it's a bit quiet.
Of course it's not completely dead out there in NBA land. The Eastern and Western Conference finals series' are in full swing, and although they haven't exactly been of the most entertaining variety, there have been a few interesting wrinkles to both series.
One in particular that's jumped out at me is the importance of Amir Johnson, or more to the point, the importance of Amir Johnson-esque forwards in today's NBA.
Take the Heat vs Pacers series.
Despite having perhaps the best defense in the league, the Indiana Pacers have really struggled in these playoffs as they've had a tough time competing against clubs that excel at spreading the floor.
Well, it's an over-simplification to a certain extent, but the Pacers' big men simply don't match up well with small-ball lineups that contain big men who can shoot from long-range. We saw it in Round 1 versus the Hawks and their "Stretch 5," Pero Antic, and we've seen it versus the Heat where LeBron James, Ray Allen and as of last night, Chris Bosh, are simply crushing the Pacers by forcing guys like David West and Roy Hibbert to scramble out to the perimeter to contest shots.
Even when those Heat players don't knock down their shots, such an attack has two more advantages for Miami. For one, with guys like Hibbert and West out on the perimeter, Indiana no longer has its biggest and best rebounders under the rim, opening up easy put-back opportunities for the Heat. Second, the Heat's long-range bombers can elect not to shoot, and in the midst of Indian's defensive scrambling, look for cutters through the lane for other easy offensive opportunities. Against a team with two of the league's deadliest slashers, that defensive chaos brought on by Miami's "stretch ability" can spell doom for Indiana.
In today's NBA, having a player who can defend the 4/5 spot, and yet who is mobile enough to help and recover is so crucial to a team's success, especially considering the emphasis most team's offences place on the three-point shot. The Toronto Raptors luckily have such a player in Amir Johnson and while he still struggles against some of the more offensively skilled types (Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson for instance), watching these two Conference Finals' series have been a nice reminder of Johnson's importance, and all of the little things he does on defensive possessions.
Over in the other series, the Thunder vs the Spurs, a very Amir Johnson-esque player in Serge Ibaka showed last game just how important he is to his team. Ibaka had only 15 points and 7 rebounds in the match, but his presence on the defensive end changed the game as he racked up four blocks, and was a huge reason his club held the San Antonio Spurs to under 40 per cent shooting from the field, and only 40 points in the paint. (Previously the Spurs seemed to have been averaging 75 points in the paint per game.)
Of course Ibaka's return may not be enough to save OKC, but it provided a nice boost in some of the areas the Thunder needed a lot of assistance with.
Here's hoping we get to see Amir Johnson have that sort of impact in next year's post-season, for the Toronto Raptors.