This article is facsimile from its original publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
The 2019 NBA Playoffs gets my inner X's and O's geek giddy.
For eighty-two games, every team perfects its playbook and fuels its offense for prime performance when the postseason arrives. The playoffs unleash a renowned scouting focus from defenses, preparing in greater depth for opponents and the playbooks they have built. In a world where everyone on the court knows what an offense is trying to accomplish, the best ones still execute and get to their sweet spots.
Part of the process includes identifying players that have specific actions designed around them, trying to get the most from non-stars while the defense and scouting reports focus on the top names.
Here are three players who particularly fly under the radar thanks to the way their team's offenses are structured, but who can play a huge role in lifting their squad over the next few weeks.
Bojan Bogdanovic, Indiana Pacers
The Pacers are a top-five Eastern Conference power that have out-performed expectations for the second consecutive year. A rag-tag group of veterans that don't play an aesthetically-pleasing style, the offense has been forged on flex screens, speedy dribble handoffs and playing two bigs at a time.
Once Victor Oladipo went down with a season-ending knee injury and the ball screen dynamic left their attack, it became difficult to imagine how the Pacers would generate an easy bucket.
But Bojan Bogdanovic has more than stepped up in the absence of Indy's two-time All-Star. Since that Oladipo injury on January 23rd, Bogdanovic has averaged 20.7 points, shooting above 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. Those numbers include a scorching-hot March, in which he shot 45.5 percent behind the arc. His performance has sneakily made him the most indispensable player on a nearly 50-win club.
Nothing sexy has propped up in coach Nate McMillan's playbook to accommodate Bogdanovic, either. The brunt of Indiana's plays are designed around the presence of two bigs, seeking ways to get Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis and Thaddeus Young to coexist. Each player usually gets one side of the floor to operate, so the Pacers run a lot of Horns sets, down screens, and pick-and-pops that turn into dribble handoffs.
For the most part, those handoffs come off pick-and-pops, where one big sets a ball screen before stepping to the top of the key. Once there, he'll catch the ball and immediately turn into a dribble handoff, most notably with Bogdanovic standing in the left corner so he comes off with his dominant hand:
Bogdanovic is fairly right-hand dominant, and the Pacers' offense takes that into consideration. Both Sabonis and Young are left-handed, so they dribble into the handoff with their dominant hand.
Bogdanovic sets up his cuts well and has a slow, old-man game when driving right that is very difficult to stop. He's strong and 6'6", and usually faces a crowd thanks to his smooth shooting.
The Pacers run a fantastic counter, where instead of hitting the big on a pick-and-pop, he slips into an immediate down screen for Bogdanovic. This "veer screen" is very popular across the league. It's nothing original or sexy, but because of its opening similarity to their many dribble handoff sets, the play frequently catches others by surprise:
McMillan can deploy Bogdanovic in so many ways. The Pacers have frequently run staggered screens late in games to get Bogdanovic a quick look, and it's a great way to play through a scoring wing without isolating.
For as diverse as he is off screens and handoffs, Bogdanovic struggles going to his left. If he comes off a screen going right, he looks to drive. If he comes off going left, he either shoots or resets the offense.
In the absence of Oladipo, the Pacers' starting rotation is huge on the wings. Bogdanovic and the 6'5" Wesley Matthews are big bodies that pick on smaller guards. Bogdanovic particularly has become adept at targeting them in semi-transition, bodying them and demanding the ball for post-ups:
The Pacers do not run a great deal of post-up actions, instead trusting Bogdanovic to pick his spots within the flow of offense for these mismatches. Flex screens give the opportunity for those post-ups as well, and since the Pacers run so many, they are not taken away through scouting. That becomes a massive point of postseason exploitation.
When Bogdanovic does get the ball on the interior, there is one go-to move in his arsenal that is difficult to stop: a reverse pivot towards the baseline after banging down low and leaning to the middle:
In a first-round series against the Boston Celtics, where a small point guard like Kyrie Irving could end up guarding Bogdanovic, those post-ups can become a major advantage.
Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets clinched a playoff berth Sunday night for the first time since 2015. While that may not seem like a massive amount of time, the franchise experienced the lowest of lows due to bad trades and worse cap / asset management.
Three years ago, a return to the postseason seemed like a pipedream. General manager Sean Marks, coach Kenny Atkinson and the entire organization deserve a great deal of credit for how they have constructed their roster and resurrected the franchise.
Part of that resurrection comes from finding diamonds in the rough like Joe Harris, a cast-off shooter that couldn't stick with the Cleveland Cavaliers as an end-of-bench option. The Nets swooped in and snatched him. He's emerged as the NBA's best three-point shooter during his third season with the club.
Harris is hitting a whopping 47.2 percent of his three-pointers—amazing when you consider he's attempted more than five per game. If he stays above 47 percent, he would join Glen Rice, Kyle Korver, JJ Redick and Steve Novak as the only shooters in NBA history to hit those accuracy marks on such high volume.
The Nets utilize Harris' shooting in a multitude of ways, many of which are unconventional.
These require a great deal of attention in scouting reports, walk-throughs and film sessions if they are to be stopped. As a tertiary option for the Nets, Harris is a win-win in that regard. If opponents pay that much attention to the sets built around him, that is less time they spend talking about D'Angelo Russell or Spencer Dinwiddie. If they pay too little attention, Harris will torch them.
Early in the season, Harris got most of his attention off staggers or from those veer screen counters to ball screens. Since the injury to Caris LeVert, Atkinson expanded the playbook for Harris, and the team's offense hasn't looked back.
A wrinkle on simple staggers, Atkinson added some Philly cuts, where a shooter runs off two screens at the elbows, flat across the floor. Harris has outstanding body control to get his shoulders squared to the rim while running away from it, allowing the coaching staff to call these plays. Even when he feels his defender on his back, he's good enough of a finisher to curl drive to the rim:
The multitude of screens is reminiscent of Harris' college offense at the University of Virginia. He would routinely come off down screens and flare screens at all angles and with many wrinkles. He's excellent at feeling contact and making the right read for where to go based on his defender's positioning.
If they play too tight and trail Harris over the top of these elbow screens, he'll simply curl around them and head to the rim for a lob:
Most NBA coaches agree that the best way to get a shooter open is to utilize him as a screener.
Sometimes those screening actions, particularly against switching teams, are too slow-developing and don't quite provide the desired results–especially for a slower player like Harris. While these actions, generally known as screen-the-screener sets, are super effective, the Nets have sped them up by instructing Harris to forego the initial screen. The fake screen from Harris is enough to freeze the defense, and that's the only threat that matters.
One fantastic screen-the-screener play Atkinson runs is a fake back screen from Harris, who then sprints off the Nets' center to the top of the key. He's open nearly every time:
The second—which has been one of my absolute favorite after-timeout plays of the season, features a fake back screen—then a screen angled to lead Harris to the sideline. The angle is so unique that there's no good way for his defender to guard the set, and even less help thanks to Harris catching the ball in the corner.
An elite shooter like him can turn his hips and shoulders so quickly. The degree of difficulty on shots like this, which Harris makes look elementary, is insane:
The Nets have slipped a bit late in the season, but Harris has been their steady sharpshooter all year. In a postseason series, a great deal of attention will have to be paid to him, or else the Nets could be a stubborn first-round matchup for any top seed in the East.
Landry Shamet, Los Angeles Clippers
No rookie may play a larger offensive role in the postseason than Shamet, a knockdown shooter and another fantastic option coming off screens. His offensive efficiency is outrageous since joining the Clippers at the trade deadline. An overall adjusted field goal percentage of 56.3 illustrates his hot streak, and the Clips have not shied away from utilizing him as a focal point.
Perhaps most staggering is the amount of shots he gets coming off screens, responsible for nearly thirty percent of his attempts, according to Synergy. Similar to Bogdanovic and Harris, the shooting prowess forces teams to guard him on these actions, opening up scores for others.
Coach Doc Rivers dials these sets frequently, knowing a quality shot will result, either for a shooter or someone else abandoned as the defense shifts. By quickly establishing himself as a great threat off screens, Shamet has given a new dynamic to the Clippers offense.
Rare for a rookie, Shamet can quickly set his feet and fire up a quality attempt. His change of speed before coming off screens sets up space to get himself open, but even if a taller defender is able to contest, few can get a shot up as quickly as he does:
Because Shamet is so effective at firing quickly, the Clippers can run single screening actions for him, keeping the other side of the floor open for other sets.
Perhaps their most popular play sees a shooter like Shamet stand under the rim, then choose which side of the floor he wants to come off a screen from. Similar to many other "floppy" actions around the league, the Clippers let their top shooter select his path.
Shamet fills that role more often than not, setting his man up in one direction before choosing the other:
To give him more room to read a screen before he comes off, the Clippers will set up a misdirection on the perimeter, then run off a baseline stagger from one side of the floor to the other.
The Clippers run this play almost once a game, seeking to get Shamet going once teams guard him tightly:
When the Clippers have designed plays after stoppages—such as out of bounds plays and after time out plays—Shamet becomes a focal point. One particular play call is a shuffle-stagger, where Danilo Gallinari gets to mismatch post on the block. Gallo, the inbounder, comes off a screen to get to the block, and then Shamet gets to show his burst off two screens toward the top of the key:
At best, Shamet is a third option when on the floor, but he's one who L.A. can hunt shots for thanks to the attention paid to Gallinari, Lou Williams or the slashing of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Part of the reason for the strong Clippers offense since the All-Star break is due to Shamet's hot shooting and his deployment from Doc Rivers.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).