This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
PLAYOFF BASKETBALL IS HERE! Shout it from the rooftops, folks.
For those who enjoy watching the chess match between one coach and another, a playoff series provides the opportunity to see it unfold in a way no other league can offer. Coaches have time to adjust, with multiple games in a series and days off to build their scheme. After 82 games, few set plays, defensive tweaks or stylistic tendencies are truly going to catch anyone off guard.
It becomes all about who can execute despite defenses working to take these very strengths away.
The Eastern Conference matchups provide especially great theatre from a tactical standpoint:
1. Milwaukee Bucks vs. 8. Detroit Pistons
The NBA's best team by most measures locked up the top spot in the East months ago. With multiple great defenders, MVP front-runner Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the stellar-shooting frontcourt that allows them to invert any possession, the Bucks are an incredibly difficult matchup.
The unfortunate task of game planning for them falls on the shoulders of Detroit Pistons head coach Dwane Casey and his staff. The Pistons limped to the finish line with an injured Blake Griffin, losing some of the mid-March razzle-dazzle that propelled them back into the race. Maybe Griffin and Andre Drummond—the top frontcourt tandem in the Eastern Conference—is a difficult-enough pairing to stop and could challenge the Bucks in ways other teams cannot.
Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis-Bledsoe Pick-And-Roll... with Giannis as the ball handler
Giannis may have his shooting limitations, but he has become an incredibly lethal player in ball screens. His Synergy efficiency numbers are high no matter what the defense does to thwart the play:
Go under screens and he's 12-of-19 from the field. Go over the pick and Giannis hasn't turned the ball over once on the year.
While ball screens aren't a high-volume staple of Mike Budenholzer's playbook, he utilizes an inverted action that allows Giannis to feast on the smallest and most susceptible defenders.
The Bucks already targeted Detroit in these actions earlier in the season, going directly after Luke Kennard. Spreading the floor, getting Giannis the ball inside the three-point arc, and letting their point guard serve as a battering ram while Antetokounmpo gathers a head of steam is a pretty scary sight:
With the shooting Milwaukee's frontcourt provides via Brook Lopez, Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova, Giannis has constant spacing to make the right play. One quick burst gets past the ball screen and the Pistons have no way of corralling him at the rim without giving up an easy kick-out three to some of the Bucks' best three-point shooters.
Dwane Casey must find a way to hide the likes of Luke Kennard, Ish Smith and Reggie Jackson from being targeted.
Detroit Pistons: Frequent Dribble Handoffs Leading to Fakes
Synergy Sports Tech rates the Pistons as the second-most efficient team out of dribble handoffs, averaging a ridiculously crisp 1.031 points per possession from them. Only the Philadelphia 76ers were more effective on the year.
Both Griffin and Drummond are excellent ball handlers for their position, and handoffs have the same effect as ball screens—they just invert who initiates the action. By playing through their bigs, the Pistons get to attack the weaker defensive spots on the Bucks roster.
Nearly every set or action sees Griffin and Drummond operate near the elbows and top of the key, with guards swirling into some dribble handoff action. While Wayne Ellington is the Piston to watch off these, too much attention cannot be paid to the guards. During late-game situations, in particular, the Pistons will fake a dribble handoff and opt to keep the ball with Griffin or Drummond to create different looks.
A game-winning set against the Denver Nuggets on March 26th highlighted their deep playbook revolving around the action:
The Pistons may not be a formidable challenger over the course of a series, but they are a tricky matchup for a team that features two All-NBA Defensive team candidates in Giannis and Bledsoe. If the guards can blow up the handoffs and strand Griffin or Drummond on an island when they pick up their dribble, the Pistons could be in for a short series.
4. Boston Celtics vs. 5. Indiana Pacers
It's a shame both teams are missing their pit bulls in this playoff showdown, but without Victor Oladipo (Pacers) or Marcus Smart (Celtics), the tenor of this series certainly changes.
The Celtics have battled inconsistencies all season despite their immense talent, starting with ultimate matchup nightmare Al Horford and the best guard in the Eastern Conference, Kyrie Irving. On the other hand, the Pacers have an identity, and they play an ugly style with two true bigs at a time. The key to this series comes down to whether the Celtics have to match that style by pairing Horford with Aron Baynes, or if they can find success going smaller against Indy.
Boston Celtics: Horford popping
According to Synergy Sports, 31.6 percent of Al Horford's scoring comes from pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop situations. He's a great facilitator, a willing passer and a unique chess piece the Celtics essentially run their offense through. Nowhere was that more apparent than the 2018 Playoffs when Horford torched Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers. It's likely that the Celtics will similarly target the Pacers' top rim protector, Myles Turner.
Horford's pick-and-pop jumpers produce an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 56.9%, giving the Celtics a great deal of offense when he's left open. The Celtics love to run alley ball screens for their guards, which lead them closer to the sideline. Those actions allow Horford to pop directly to the top of the key, where no defender can scramble to him based on standard NBA help coverages.
The result is usually a clean look:
The Pacers will mix up their ball screen coverages, particularly on Irving. Whether they hard-hedge, soft-hedge or trap, the easy counter is to send Horford popping to the top of the key. If he doesn't have a look to shoot, there is no center in the league I'd rather trust to make the appropriate play and find the open man.
Indiana Pacers: Sabonis Going Left
Earlier in the week, I wrote about the effectiveness of some sets built around Bogdanovic and how he's carried the Pacers during the second half of the year. Bogdanovic is right-hand dominant and starts most possessions in the left offensive corner so that he can come off frequent down screens or dribble handoffs with his strong hand. This is a focal point of the post-Oladipo offense, with many wrinkles and counters.
Taking Bogdanovic away from his tendencies is well and good until Bogdanovic gets too much attention paid to him.
Then, the Pacers let Domantas Sabonis—their Sixth Man of the Year candidate and much-improved big—engage in those dribble handoffs going left to his dominant hand. Sabonis has a great feel for when defenses hug Bogdanovic and will turn the actions into one-on-one drives for himself. Always going left:
Sabonis is an X-factor in this series. If the Celtics trot out frequent lineups with Horford and Baynes, he'll need to be a facilitator and keep running the offense.
But once Boston goes little and Sabonis gets a smaller wing on him, it's time to be an aggressive interior scoring option. Too much attention paid to the dribble handoffs in the corner, particularly by the big man's defender, will lead to open layups for the Lithuanian.
3. Philadelphia 76ers vs. 6. Brooklyn Nets
This happens to be a difficult matchup for the higher-seeded Sixers. The Nets shoot a ton of threes and will spread the floor appropriately, helping open their attack through ball screens. And it just so happens that the Sixers' worst defensive struggle comes from guarding the pick-and-roll.
Philly has much more firepower, and they're able to brutalize teams within isolation, but if D'Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie are efficient, the Nets could be a first-round spoiler.
Philadelphia 76ers: Redick screening for Embiid
The Sixers run an action I'm not sure how to stop.
The vast majority of their offense flows through deliberate actions at the elbow, allowing Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to catch the ball within their scoring ranges. The rest of the offense—mainly JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris—swirl around the elbows, looking for dribble handoffs, backdoors and mismatch posts if a defender cheats. Embiid's ability to play anywhere on offense has been the catalyst for the versatility of these elbow actions.
But did you know Embiid is a competent ball handler in the pick-and-roll?
As crazy as that sounds, it's true, given the fact that pick-and-roll opportunities for him are heavily scripted and wildly unorthodox. Embiid will catch the ball at one elbow, seemingly ready to engage in an empty-side dribble handoff with Redick. Thanks to the gravity that Redick creates as a shooter, he gets face-guarded. Now, instead of trying to jam a handoff through the tight defense, Redick will just barrel into Embiid's man, acting as a screener that allows Joel to get a dunk:
The Nets will have their hands full with this action. Against Philly's crunchtime lineups featuring Simmons-Redick-Butler-Harris-Embiid, the backcourt pairings of Russell and Joe Harris have nowhere to hide. Someone will be playing Redick tighter than they should to prevent him from springing open.
If you notice Redick getting face-guarded, keep your eyes peeled for this Embiid elbow action.
Brooklyn Nets: Attacking the Sixers Through Ball Screens
If the Sixers' main weakness is pick-and-roll defense, the Nets are built to exploit it. Three of their ball handlers (Russell, Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert) are top-third in pick-and-roll effectiveness, and a lot of that comes from how different they are.
Russell is a shoot-first guy with limited vertical athleticism and a smooth pull-up. When teams go under picks, he's shooting 53 percent. Dinwiddie is quite the opposite: a thickly-built bully that is great finishing one-on-one at the rim. He's in the 93rd percentile in scoring against opponents that go under picks. The Sixers must figure out how to best thwart each.
Right now, they have a bigger problem, however: keeping Joel Embiid and Boban Marjanovic out of harm's way. In their most recent matchup, the Nets crawled out of a massive deficit by attacking each in the pick-and-roll for multiple open attempts:
Almost every trip down, the Nets got a layup attempt, a makeable floater, or a wide open jump shot. They got the same against Philadelphia during December 12th their meeting, where the Nets went after Embiid early and often. They got high-quality looks, as he rarely ventured outside the elbows to steer the ball handlers in any direction.
That strategy is okay if there's consistency between the Sixers guards going over the top of ball screens and if Embiid makes an impact on the ball when it's driven at him. But he did neither:
The Sixers absolutely must tighten their ball screen coverage if they plan on advancing in the playoffs. Personally, I'm astounded so many All-NBA awards ballots feature Embiid in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. He's a blatant point of attack for teams that have dynamic guards, which should continue in the Brooklyn series.
2. Toronto Raptors vs. 7. Orlando Magic
The Raptors have redefined their offensive approach this season, thanks to the addition of Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol, the improved play of Pascal Siakam, and the creativity of first-year head coach Nick Nurse.
While their offense is filled with stretch bigs that cause nightmare matchups for Nikola Vucevic, they also have the best guard in the series, Kyle Lowry, allowing for many modes of attack. The Magic, led to a late-season surge by their defense, have an All-Star of their own in Vucevic, plus an upstart group of guys playing way better than many foresaw at the start of the season.
Toronto Raptors: 3-2 Zone Defense
The Raptors' X's and O's key is also about their defensive rotations. The Raptors go to their zone defense out of timeouts and when they need to change the pace of the game. Early in the season, the Miami Heat successfully began running a 2-3 zone. Since then, the rest of the league has copied their approach, particularly out of timeouts to disrupt whatever set the opposing coach has drawn up.
This will be the first postseason where this is a common approach, and I cannot wait to see how frustrated teams get trying to execute as a result.
The Raptors installed their own change-of-pace defense: a 3-2 look. Thanks to their great length, they deploy Pascal Siakam, Kawhi Leonard or OG Anunoby atop the zone. This overall length allows them to frustrate players and disrupt passes for turnovers:
The length atop the zone is key for another reason: rotations.
When the ball does go to the post or the short corner in a 3-2 zone, the top man is responsible for dropping to the top of the charge circle and taking the middle of the floor. Size and length, as well as quickness, allow defenders to get there quickly, impact shots from behind and rebound out of the zone:
The weakness in a 3-2 zone is in the corners. Most teams hide their posts and biggest players on the backline, limiting their time guarding the ball and keeping them closer to the basket. The obvious counter to that comes from placing shooters in the corners, daring bigs like Marc Gasol to venture out there and challenge the shot.
For a team like Orlando with streaky shooting bigs, that may be what the Raptors are okay with giving up, daring Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac to step out. Steve Clifford is an underrated coach when it comes to ATO (After Timeout) plays, and the Magic have statistically performed well against zone defenses. How much Nurse feels comfortable trotting out a change-of-pace will likely have to do with how the Raptors can guard one-on-one.
Orlando Magic: Terrence Ross, curling and backdooring
At first glance, the Magic don't have a lot of offensive pieces to build around. Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier are the two primary options, and Aaron Gordon is a diverse enough piece to score within anything they run. But the guy to watch out for that gets forgotten is Terrence Ross. He has been electric this season and is shooting 38.3 percent from three on the year. He's especially scorching from his last five games, canning 49.0 percent of his treys while averaging 18.9 per game in his last eleven.
The Raptors have to find him and get a hand up, especially when coming off screens. Ross has a high release, so defenders must do their work early to prevent a shot.
Ross has a great feel for how defenders play him and has become a great threat via curl screens . Synergy estimates he shoots above 60 percent after curling a screen, many of which come thanks to tight staggers where he can get into the lane unimpeded.
The actions are different based on the side of the floor he starts in. If Ross is in the right corner, the set is more like a true stagger. If he's on the left side, the ball gets dribbled below the free throw line and he comes to his right off screens set above ball level:
Establishing Ross can lead to his defender playing him too tightly. How about the Magic dialing up frequent backdoor calls out of timeouts to get him going? They'll put Ross in the corner, hit the elbow above him and then zip him backdoor. He's dunking it before his man has time to pull up the compression shorts he was faked out of!
They even got the Raptors on that play earlier in the year:
The Magic are an underrated X's and O's team that runs a lot of great action. If the Raptors do play them in man, the hot streak of Ross and the easy buckets he gets are key to Orlando's chances. They split 2-2 with the Raptors during the regular season, so this could be a closer series than many expect.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).