2021 JBL Finals Preview: Seattle Thunder vs Detroit Mustangs
- By The Commissioner, Day 216, 2021
It’s time. After a long season, the 2021 Finals are finally here, featuring last year’s conference finalists the Seattle Thunder, and a team that turned it around from a 22-34 record to finishing #1 and a 60-22 record in the East, the Detroit Mustangs. Both teams would feel blessed to be here, given their respective challenges through the playoffs, with both teams being on the brink of elimination.
Seattle will go into Game 1 as favourites, having come out of the West with a 62-20 record and having gone through the Austin Rockets (7 games), Las Vegas Scorpions (5 games) and the league leading Houston Lightning (6 games), all challenging teams themselves. Despite some shaky moments, the Thunder have done it tough and likely see the Mustangs as their easiest opponent so far.
Conversely, the Mustangs just came storming back from a 3-1 deficit in the Conference Finals against the Toronto Huskies to win in 7 games. Previously, Detroit defeated the Devils in 4 games and the Warriors in a tight 7 game series (although one which it was highly favoured to win). The Mustangs will be hoping that momentum can carry them through against a Thunder team that made the Conference Finals last year and is extremely hungry for their first ring in 11 years.
The following are some reasons why each team has the chance to win and what they would need to do to taste the champagne at the end of this week.
Why Detroit will win
1. Offensive firepowerThere was no better offense in the league this year than Detroit, scoring 116.3 points per 100 possessions, primarily due to their dominant wing rotation. Demetric Vaughn led the way again with an All-JBL-worthy offensive enslaught, averaging 27.2ppg, 5.5rpg and 4.3apg and playing all 82 games. Vaughn is the lynchpin of this team; when he shoots well, the Mustangs win (28ppg and 55% eFG in wins and 25ppg and 46% eFG in losses). He has also gone from trying to control the entire offense by himself (and often turning the ball over at an obscene rate), to sharing the ball more with forward Pace LaGarde, who joined the team during the 2021 offseason.
LaGarde delivers a much needed second option (the main difference from the Mustangs' 2020 season), and if this series turns into duelling offenses, LaGarde may just have given them a very slight edge. Vaughn and Phifer are probably comparable, but LaGarde, Reggie Dawkins can probably outplay Aaron Rowland, Ainsley Tucker or Antoine Hall offensively; he is a beast inside and is still capable of 30 point, 15 rebound performances. And let’s not forget Christian Vickery, whose matchup will be second year point guard DeAngelo Tarver. Despite his diminutive stature, Vickery is a better scorer, better distributor and ultimately a better player (for now). While Vickery won’t be taking advantage of the taller Tarver, the Mustangs’ best offensive sets will likely come with them targeting Tarver.
2. Pace LaGardeLaGarde has probably been the difference for this Detroit team, averaging 21.0ppg, 9.1rpg, 5.0apg and 2.1spg. Just two years after a horrific ACL injury, Pace does everything that can be asked of him. His footspeed has slowed but he can still pour on the points when he needs to. He and Vaughn often take turns in tormenting defenses, and his basketball IQ is so high that sometimes when he has the ball it seems as if
Pace will need to outplay Aaron Rowland, who is starting to resemble a player of Pace’s ilk with his all-around game (13.3ppg, 8.8rpg and 5.2apg in the playoffs), and deliver not only points but a defensive presence, rebounding and leadership on offense.
3. Veteran experienceThree out of the four Detroit starters have rings (Christian Vickery 2009, Vaughn 2010 and LaGarde 2014), and let’s not forget Johan Arden’s ring with Vaughn in 2010. Arden, who signed for the MLE during the offseason, provides much needed stability off the bench, offsetting second year forward Hassan Bundu’s inexperience and inconsistency. Experience was probably the reason the Mustangs got through against the Huskies, making intelligent decisions at key moments and not panicking when the team looked down and out. The Thunder, though, are not the Huskies; despite their youth they have been here, or close to it, before. However, if it comes down to a Game 7, that vet experience could be the difference.
4. Detroit wins one of the first two games in SeattleIt’s a simple equation: Detroit must win game 1 or game 2. As indicated below, the fact that Thunder have home court could be a huge difference in how the series swings. If the Mustangs manages to snatch a game away and return to Detroit 1-1 with home court, they would absolutely see themselves as favourites.
If the Mustangs don’t win one of the first two, they would still have the chance to even the series up at 2-2 going home, but this would be their best chance and would put the Thunder on the back foot immediately.
Why Seattle will win
1. DefenseThis series is essentially pitting the league’s best offense against the league’s best defense. The team that wins will be the team that can enforce their scheme over the other.
The Thunder are *very* good at enforcing their scheme, finishing second in the league in defensive efficiency and limiting teams to just 103.7 points per 100 possessions. They boast the best young defensive power forward in the game, Ainsley Tucker, who is now feared — for good reason — for his ability to lock down opposing players. Seattle has a smothering, suffocating defensive scheme that results in plenty of steals and lack of open shots for its opposition.
The Thunder would favour their defensive matchups here: Hall against Dawkins (or Arden), Tucker against Bundu (or Dawkins), Rowland against LaGarde, Phifer against Vaughn, Tarver against Vickery. We may see Tucker against LaGarde or even Vaughn at some stage during the series, if either of the Mustangs’ wings become a problem for Phifer or Rowland.
2. Andre PhiferDemetric Vaughn is the original; Phifer is the remix. It is no coincidence that Phifer’s player similarity score is Vaughn and vice versa, given the way they are both firebrand scorers. This Thunder team is Phifer’s team — if it wins the Finals, it will likely be because Phifer outmatched Vaughn and put the team on his back. Right now he is odds on favourite for Finals MVP, averaging 27.7ppg, 5.0rpg and 4.3apg so far in the playoffs, and the Thunder will look to him and hope that he replicates his recent performances.
3. Youth and depthSeattle are younger, quicker and love to run (when the coach lets them); the Mustangs are much older and need more rest — it’s a simple equation. The Mustangs will need to conserve their energy and Seattle may need to ratchet up the pace to really drill this advantage home in the Finals. The Thunder showed this in the Houston series: when they play fast (like Game 7), they get more opportunities to work it around offensively and get everyone involved instead of relying on Phifer alone. Notably, the team is 15-5 when Tucker scores over 25 points.
Aaron Rowland has been a revelation at the SF spot since being drafted at #6 last season. He is a fantastic defender and rebounder, a great passer and has shown all the signs he is going to be an All-Star in this league. He doesn’t quite have the offensive killer instinct that say, LaGarde has, but he’s quicker and far more explosive. Rowland’s youthful exuberance and energy may be the difference at the end of games when the veterans are getting tired.
Seattle also has the 2020 Sixth Man of the Year, Devan Carroll, to rely on when their starters need a rest. Carroll has not been as good this year, primarily due to shooting the ball poorly, but still provides a much needed flex player at either forward spot to spell Tucker, Rowland or even Phifer and he is much, much better than Arden (or Bundu). At the conclusion of a very long and exhausting playoff run, having a player of Carroll’s calibre could swing the pendulum when he is on the floor against the Mustangs’ B team.
4. Outside shootingDetroit were 30th in three point rate and 29th in 3PA per game, whereas the Thunder were 7th in 3Pr and 6th in 3PA, the difference being almost 10 more attempts per game. While Detroit hits at a high clip (35.6%) to the Thunder’s 34.5%, the Thunder have the ability to sink threes when they need to, and given their grinding pace, always allows them to stay in the game. Detroit may consider changing this part of their game plan to enable them to keep up.
5. Homecourt advantageThe Thunder were 32-9 at home; the Mustangs were 33-8. Where they differ is their ability to get it done on the road: Detroit was 27-14 and Seattle an even more impressive 30-11. Considering the Thunder’s more difficult road to the playoffs through the West, they’ll take any advantage they can get, and that could turn on having a game 5 or game 7 at home in front of their extremely loud and devoted fans.
OutcomeEither way, this is going to be a great series. As noted above, if Detroit manages to win an early game then this is a series that could go the distance. The Thunder probably have the edge going into the series, but when the chips are down Detroit do have the veteran experience to be able to pull out a famous victory. Many of their players have been to the Finals before. At the same time, there probably has never been a hungrier team than this Seattle squad; some of the musings out of Detroit seem to be that the team is relieved to be in the Finals, rather than obsessively seeking the title. As always, much will depend on the little things: the hustle plays, intelligent coaching and rotations, the one-percenters, and of course, a little bit of luck.
May the best team win!