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The Five Plays You Need to Know About Heading Into the NBA Playoffs

From mutated pick-and-rolls to off-kilter handoffs, these are some of the ways players like James Harden, Isaiah Thomas, and Giannis Antetokounmpo create easy buckets

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The relationship between pick-and-roll offense and defense is not unlike the relationship between the flu and its vaccine. Each year, a new vaccine must be created to minimize the flu’s potential damage on the body. Teams have used different variations of the pick-and-roll for years, and new variants became more prominent last season. Teams began to integrate a “slide pick-and-roll,” which Warriors head coach Steve Kerr described on The Bill Simmons Podcast as “kind of a fake pick-and-roll,” where the setter fakes the screen and darts to the 3-point line instead of making contact with the ball handler’s defender. It looked like this:

The slide was a counterattack against defenses switching one of the Warriors’ typical pick-and-rolls (usually with Draymond Green as the ball handler and Stephen Curry as the screener, or vice versa). It was up to the defense to learn how to contain it. Then it was up to the offense to learn how to mutate again once defenses adapted. This is the circle of life for a play.

While the pick-and-roll is the bread and butter of a modern NBA offense — teams are running the pick-and-roll more than any time over the past decade, according to data derived from Synergy Sports — it’s not the only play type teams must continuously develop. All plays evolve. The NBA playoffs are a time for coaches to unveil plays they’ve been saving for higher stakes, or for defenses to finally start figuring out how to stop a unique play teams have run all year. Here are five plays to keep an eye out for this postseason:

The Pick-and-Roll of Death?

Despite what they’ve done in pushing the pick-and-roll forward in past years, the Warriors are hardly running the play this season. They finish only 21 percent of their possessions with a score out of the pick-and-roll, which ranks last in the NBA, per Synergy, nearly seven percentage points less than the next closest team (the Sixers). Kerr does get creative when they do use it, though: Much of the Warriors playbook employs guards as screeners. But their pick-and-roll attack sputtered in the playoffs when the Cavs would switch the screen. The Cavs figured out their attack, and it led to a championship. But the Warriors quickly countered in the offseason. When they signed Kevin Durant last summer, I expected to see a heavy dose of pick-and-roll with Curry as the ball handler and Durant as the screener, but it’s been a rarity. Here are a handful of their possessions:

The Warriors withheld the slide-screen variation during the regular season last year for the playoffs, and I wonder if they’ve done the same this year with Durant-Curry pick-and-rolls. Both players are elite shooters. Both can attack the rim. Both can pass. Both are all-time great scorers. It’d make sense for Kerr to avoid using the set to limit game film for opposing coaches to prepare for. Let’s hope the Warriors reveal some new pick-and-roll wrinkles with Durant and Curry, because the possibilities are devastating.

Even going back to the basic pick-and-roll with Durant and Curry can be effective for the Dubs, just as it is with LeBron James and the Cavs or with the Bucks this season. With Giannis Antetokounmpo blossoming as a superstar, Milwaukee has started to incorporate Matthew Dellavedova as a screener for Greek Freak pick-and-roll plays.

Per Synergy, Dellavedova scores 1.4 points per possession on the pick-and-pop. It comes on a small sample of 19 shots, but considering his career 41.3 percent rate on spot-up 3s (per SportVU) it’s a sustainable level of efficiency. With Delly providing an effective shooting presence, driving lanes open for Giannis:

Antetokounmpo is as close as it gets to LeBron in the NBA. The Bucks have the 13th-ranked half-court scoring offense this season, per Synergy. To make an extended playoff run, their efficiency needs to improve since they’ll likely have fewer transition opportunities due to the slower-paced nature of the playoffs. Their fate may come down to the potency of Antetokounmpo pick-and-rolls.

Bringing “Spain” to the NBA

Teams then looked abroad to find a new approach by adding an extra body to the play. A newer variation of the high pick-and-roll has taken the NBA by storm this year. Gibson Pyper of Half Court Hoops calls it a Spain pick-and-roll because it was first spotted in Spanish league play. NBA teams like the Wizards have used Spain in the past, but it’s become more prominent lately. The Spain pick-and-roll occurs when a screen is set for the ball handler, then a third player sets a screen on the player defending the man rolling to the rim. A normal pick-and-roll is used to create a two-on-one advantage — adding a third player essentially turns it into a three-on-two.

Here’s what the Spain pick-and-roll looks like:

Notice how Nene sets a pick for James Harden and rolls hard to the rim, as if it’s a typical pick-and-roll, but then Eric Gordon plasters Alex Len with a back screen. That extra wrinkle parts the sea for Nene, completely open for a dunk at the rim. Here’s another example:

Harden has three options on the play: hit Montrezl Harrell for the lob, kick it out to Gordon or Ryan Anderson for a 3, or take the layup himself. He takes the last one. The Rockets score 1.08 points per possession when Harden shoots, draws a foul, or passes out of the pick-and-roll, per Synergy, an extraordinary amount considering his volume.

An NBA advance scout explained the effectiveness of Spain thusly: It’s not as easy as simply switching a screen when there are three parts involved rather than two. If a team switches, communication between defenders has to be on the level of a happily married couple, otherwise the play will lead to easy buckets at the rim. If the defense packs the paint, then it can lead to open 3s for the back screener:

The Rockets aren’t the only team that runs the Spain pick-and-roll. Look for it from teams with high-powered backcourt duos, like the Blazers and Wizards, or teams with dynamic scoring wings like the Spurs and Jazz. In the clips above, C.J. McCollum’s back screen stuns Myles Turner before McCollum sprints to the 3-point line, and against the Clippers he slips the screen. There are endless variations to this set, determined by a team’s personnel, and I’ll be watching to see if anyone unveils new deviations in the playoffs.

Off-Ball Isaiah

Isaiah Thomas is having one of the most efficient high-volume scoring seasons ever. Of the 457 total instances in which a player has averaged 19 or more shots in league history, Thomas ranks sixth in true shooting percentage and 25th in effective field goal percentage, per Basketball-Reference. Among point guards, only Stephen Curry’s 2015–16 season ranks better. While it’s true that a large majority of the little guy’s offense comes in pick-and-roll, isolations, and ferocious transition sprints, the Celtics also use their superstar as a dynamic off-ball threat.

Brad Stevens began installing sets running Thomas through screens about halfway through last season to get him a “live dribble,” a situation in which the player receives the ball and immediately goes into an action, such as a shot or dribble penetration, rather than stopping and going into a triple-threat stance. Now, more than two years since Thomas was acquired, Stevens is getting even more creative by placing him into dribble handoffs. Thomas leads the league in dribble handoff possessions with 213, per Synergy Sports. Here’s the variation they run most often:

Thomas starts off in the right corner, an area of the 3-point range where he shoots 50.8 percent, then runs through a screen. As that’s happening, a player at the top of the key dribbles toward Thomas for the handoff. Per Synergy, Thomas scores an elite 1.17 points per possession in this scenario. The play is hard to defend because the defender usually lags behind and Thomas can attack in so many different ways. If the defender goes under the screen, Thomas can pull up for 3. If he goes over, Thomas can attack the rim to finish or draw fouls. If the defense aggressively denies the lane, Thomas can pass to an open man.

There’s also a fourth result that I find quite comical:

Thomas frequently jacks up a 3 the second he receives the dribble handoff if he feels the defender breathing down his neck. When he stops on a dime, it’s almost impossible for the defender to react in time to avoid sprinting into Thomas. It’ll be fascinating to watch how defenses contain this action in the playoffs, because as important as it is to stop him on the ball, you can’t fall asleep when he’s lurking in the corner, either.

Utah’s Uphill Handoff

Quin Snyder gets virtually no hype for coach of the year, which is a shame. The Jazz have suffered through seemingly endless injuries, yet they’re still going to end up with a top-10 record in the NBA. Snyder’s ability to maximize the abilities of his players by drawing up creative plays is not dissimilar to Stevens’s, discussed in the last blurb. The Jazz are unique in the way they run an uphill dribble handoff with their center, usually Rudy Gobert, handing the ball off to Gordon Hayward or Rodney Hood.

Here’s what that looks like:

Gobert stands with the ball at the top of the key as Hayward sprints through for the handoff. Hayward’s defender (Elfrid Payton) trails him by going over the screen, which keeps him attached to Hayward’s hip. And yet, because of the unusual angle of the handoff, Payton ends up on his back. It turns into a two-on-one situation with Hayward attacking and Gobert diving into the paint. The defense is essentially at the mercy of Hayward missing:

The play can also be run from the wing, and here we see again how Meyers Leonard is on an island against Hayward and Gobert. If Leonard is too aggressive with Hayward, then Gobert is available for a lob dunk. Conversely, if the defender goes under the screen, Hayward or Hill can simply unload 3s.

The Jazz have the 12th-ranked half-court offense this season, per Synergy. To sustain a playoff run, they’ll need their wings to perform well within Snyder’s creative sets.

Small-Ball Cavs

Cleveland’s defense is a hot mess. The Cavs are allowing 108 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 23rd in the NBA, and since the trade deadline they have a sub-.500 record at 12–14 with a net rating just barely in the black. They’re playing like an average NBA team heading into the playoffs.

If they win another title, it’ll be because of their offense, which remains potent. They’ve been going smaller in recent weeks and are increasingly using LeBron as a small-ball center. Over the full season, they’ve logged only 105 minutes with LeBron at the 5. They’ve been dominant in those minutes, posting a 129.6 offensive rating and 108.7 defensive rating, per NBA Wowy. The lineup generally includes Irving at guard, with floor-spacing wings in Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson, and J.R. Smith. It’s a no-defense, all-offense lineup that creates spacing like this, in a game against the Hornets, for LeBron to attack the rim:

If the Hornets switch, they’re asking for trouble putting Marco Belinelli on LeBron. But without switching, they can’t really expect Jeremy Lamb to effectively protect the rim when James rumbles down the lane. In the play below, the Celtics switch, and Kelly Olynyk is on an island with LeBron. The mere threat of James penetrating the paint forces the entire defense to collapse, which opens everyone on the perimeter:

The Cavaliers can create this type of spacing with Kevin Love or Channing Frye on the floor, but neither of them shares the same type of versatility on defense, and Frye isn’t capable of making plays off the bounce like Cleveland’s wings are. That playmaking factor is important since James doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be used effectively:

There’s no one specific play the Cavaliers run with their super-small-ball lineup, but the maximized spacing puts James in a position to be at his best no matter how the defense reacts.