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The Scheme of Things: The X’s and O’s Adjustments That Could Change Each NBA Playoff Series

The eight teams left standing are pulling out all the stops to stave off elimination. Here are the coaching moves in all four conference semifinals that have a chance to swing the outcome.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The second round of the NBA playoffs is living up to the hype, with Nuggets-Blazers and Raptors-Sixers both tied 2-2 heading into Monday night, when the Rockets and Celtics will have a chance to tie the favored Warriors and Bucks. A number of trends and changes have played a factor in this round; here’s a look at a major one from each series.

Just When Your Defense Thought It Was Safe to Let Giannis Shoot 3-Pointers ...

Forget the Greek Freak, meet the Greek God: Giannis Antetokounmpo just completed a regular season that could make him the third player in NBA history to win Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year, joining the estimable company of Michael Jordan (1987-88) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1993-94).

There’s really only one missing piece in Antetokounmpo’s game: a reliable jump shot. Defenders normally sag off Antetokounmpo anytime he has the ball on the perimeter, since he drives the ball like LeBron and finishes like Shaq. The best way to defend him is to force him into jumpers: Giannis shot only 25.6 percent from 3 and 34.5 percent from midrange this season, which makes him less like his contemporary superstars, and more like a throwback in the game’s new world of pace and space.

But lately he has started conforming to the times. Giannis has made 33.3 percent of his 3.9 attempted 3s per game in the playoffs, including draining half of his 10 attempts through three games against the Celtics. The turning point came on March 4, when the Bucks lost to the Suns in what was their worst loss of the regular season. Up through that game, Giannis had attempted only 2.4 shots from 3 per game (14.1 percent of his total shots). Since then, he’s attempting 4.3 shots from 3 per game (24.2 percent of his total shots). Antetokounmpo is still hitting only 30.6 percent of his attempts, including the playoffs, but it’s become harder not to at least respect his outside shot.

“He finally started listening,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer cracked before Game 3 when I remarked on Antetokounmpo’s shot distribution numbers. I asked whether the shift was driven by the team. Budenholzer then praised Antetokounmpo’s work ethic and said getting him to shoot 3s is a big part of what the Bucks want to do. He added, “I haven’t seen or read or heard those numbers, but I’m certainly pleased. He knows that we’ve been pushing that envelope from day one.” Since Budenholzer was hired last May, the Bucks coaching staff has wanted to add the pull-up 3 to Giannis’s arsenal. All summer, he worked on his mechanics and approach, and before games he works closely with Bucks assistant coach Ben Sullivan, a disciple of San Antonio’s Chip Engelland.

Antetokounmpo has developed a more fluid rhythm pulling up from his left-handed dribble; he won’t fool anyone into thinking he’s Kevin Durant, but it’s an improvement. There were times earlier this season when he wouldn’t even look to shoot, instead swinging the ball or dribbling into a 2-point pull-up. Now, those pull-up 2s are becoming pull-up 3s, as he’s begun to stretch deep midrange shots into shots behind the arc.

Giannis Pull-up Shot Selection

Shots Per Game Through March 4 Since March 4
Shots Per Game Through March 4 Since March 4
Pull-up 2s 2.4 1.3
Pull-up 3s 1.4 3.8

“The further you have to come out and guard Giannis, the more opportunities there are for him to attack and create,” Budenholzer said. “He’s just gonna keep getting better and better.” If you want to see a play that captures this change, look no further than Game 3. With about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, Giannis caught a pass and pump-faked from 3, duping Al Horford into leaving his feet. One dribble and four steps later, Antetokounmpo’s head was at the rim and the ball was through the net. All normal stuff by Giannis’s standards, except for how it happened. Top defenders typically wouldn’t have fallen for his fakes in the past, but he’s become a shooter who’s worth taking seriously.

“I have no idea how to defend him. You have to live with something,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said before Game 3. “It’s why everybody is saying when he shoots a higher volume and makes it at 40 percent, what do you do then? Not sure.”

It’s scary to think of Antetokounmpo as a work in progress. Truly great players continue to add elements to their games, and honing his jumper has been Giannis’s greatest test. What we’re witnessing today, though, is progress, not the finished product. Antetokounmpo’s blend of skill and versatility has elevated the Bucks to contender status, and his evolution in recent months has made them even more formidable. When Giannis is taking 3s, defenses must respect him; and when he’s making them, they have no hope.

Steph Curry Has Become the Hunted

Not all humans are blessed with otherworldly physical traits like Giannis. Just look at Curry. Though Curry is an all-time great performer on the court, he’s still small by NBA standards. Even in the so-called era of “small ball,” size matters, and smaller players get targeted, especially in the postseason when coaches look for the slightest matchup advantage. The Warriors lead the Rockets 2-1 in the Western Conference semifinals, but Curry is being hunted, and it’s something to watch for as the series continues. The Rockets have used Curry’s man to screen for James Harden a total of 58 times, according to Second Spectrum tracking data via FiveThirtyEight. That’s an average of 19.3 instances per game, over six times more than it happened in the regular season, when Curry guarded the screener 2.9 times per game.

Houston’s approach is a continuation of what teams have done against Curry in the past: looking to get their best player matched with him, one-on-one. “Teams still try to pick on me. Look around the court,” Curry told me in January. “Obviously, if you’re trying to pick matchups, I’m probably the bottom of the totem pole.”

Curry is a better defender than he gets credit for, but he’s still the weak link when he shares the floor with four All-Defensive-team–caliber defenders in Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala. The Rockets should target Curry. In the 58 times that the Rockets involved Curry in a screen for Harden, however, the two superstar guards have rarely matched up. In the series, Harden has attempted only seven shots over 15 possessions with Curry as the primary defender, according to Second Spectrum via The Rockets are still scoring a tremendous 1.14 points per play, despite the Warriors doing everything in their power to avoid putting Curry on an island with the Beard.

In the clip above, Curry hedges hard against the screen, then scampers back to Austin Rivers, while Durant defends both Rockets players on the right side of the court. This is the standard for Golden State, and it’s a good result. Though Harden splits the screen and penetrates, he attempts a tough, contested floater. In Game 3, the Rockets did a better job of hitting the screener slipping or popping to the 3-point line.

The Rockets run so much pick-and-roll that the Warriors can sometimes anticipate it, and switch Curry off the screener even before the screen occurs. In this play, the Rockets attempt to re-screen Curry twice, but Curry switches onto Thompson’s man, Chris Paul, and Thompson switches onto P.J. Tucker. Harden ends up scoring on the play.

The Warriors have minimized the number of possessions Curry defends Harden, but they won’t always get what they want. Still, Golden State has another tactic it uses called a “veer” to switch Curry off Harden.

A veer, which can also be called a “go” or a “peel,” is essentially a late switch that defenses use to get more size on the ball. In the instance above, Curry couldn’t stop Harden from going left, so Iguodala swapped with Curry, who made an instinctive play in picking off Harden’s pass to Capela. The Warriors don’t use this often, since Curry is so infrequently matched up on Harden, but it’s one counterattack in the inevitable times that this situation occurs.

Harden might not always get the matchup he wants against Curry, but the Rockets are still producing. When the series resumes Monday night, don’t expect the Rockets to stop spamming the pick-and-roll. The only question now is what the Warriors will try next to neutralize it.

The Raptors’ Big Bet Pays Off

In recent years, we’ve seen teams go smaller as a series progresses. But don’t tell that to the Raptors and Sixers. They’re playing jumbo-sized lineups that resemble an NBA before the 3-point revolution.

After losing Game 1, the Sixers won games 2 and 3 by leveraging their size advantage on both ends of the court. Meanwhile, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse rolled out tiny lineups featuring Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and Kyle Lowry, or frontcourts with Pascal Siakam at the 4. Toronto got pounded on the boards by Philly’s big lineups, and looked overmatched on defense. In Game 4, however, Nurse struck back with size of his own and the Raptors tied the series with a huge road win.

Nurse shortened the bench and stretched the minutes of the only players he can rely on: Kawhi Leonard and the other four starters. Powell and VanVleet combined to average 35.8 minutes in games 1, 2, and 3, but played a total of 11 in Game 4. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka didn’t share the floor at all in the previous three games—and have played only 34 total minutes together in all other games between the regular season and playoffs—but in Game 4, they played alongside each other for nearly 24 minutes and outscored the Sixers by 11.3 points per 100 possessions. Playing both Gasol and Ibaka limits the Raptors’ offensive spacing, but Toronto was missing shots anyway this series with smaller players. Gasol and Ibaka execute plays better. They are good screeners who make smart plays with the ball and also offer a different offensive look.

Both Gasol and Ibaka can post up against mismatches, and they offer complementary skills in the screen game. Gasol can pick-and-pop for 3s, and Ibaka can roll down the lane and outmuscle opponents. In the clip above, the Raptors ran a double screen to use these traits, and Ibaka buried Tobias Harris underneath the rim for the bucket.

One of Philadelphia’s most important changes of the series was putting Joel Embiid on Siakam and Tobias Harris on Gasol. Sixers head coach Brett Brown then allowed both defenders to roam off their assignments, which clogged the lane and made it difficult for Toronto to attack. Siakam was especially limited, as it’s harder to go around Embiid than it is to drive through Harris. Siakam was visibly limited by a calf contusion in Game 4, but in the fourth quarter, he and the Raptors attacked Embiid by screening him inside the paint.

Playing with so much size would typically make a team less versatile on defense, but playing against the Sixers is an exception. Due to Ibaka and Gasol’s size, Toronto can switch on and off the ball while also protecting the rim better. Ibaka, in particular, played with an edge.

As versatile as Siakam is on defense, he can’t be an enforcer in the paint like Ibaka. The play above is a good example: Gasol and Siakam appear to miscommunicate on a switch, but Ibaka helps on a driving Ben Simmons, then rotates back over to swat Harris.

A couple of possessions can swing an entire game, and contributions like these from Ibaka helped make the difference.

Harris’s performance is worth monitoring in Game 5. He was awful on Sunday, hitting just two of his 13 triples. The Raptors were more willing to help off him to clog the paint, and Harris didn’t come through. However, Harris is a 39.6 percent shooter on catch-and-shoot 3s the past two seasons, so they may not be as lucky moving forward. It’ll be a difficult balance for the Raptors, but making changes to the system usually requires giving something up. On Sunday, going big worked.

Denver Is Making Sure Dame Time Is Off Schedule

During the long regular season, teams do little or even no preparation game to game. There’s not enough time to practice and implement a game plan like an NFL team can over a full week, or a baseball pitcher can for his next scheduled start. Individual player weaknesses and tendencies receive less attention and can often go ignored. In the playoffs, however, every flaw is under a microscope and teams will prepare to exploit them. On Sunday, the Nuggets beat the Trail Blazers to tie the series 2-2, and once again, Damian Lillard wasn’t hitting his usual deep 3s and daggers.

Denver has limited Lillard all series, holding the All-NBA point guard to 27.3 points per game with a 55.1 true shooting percentage, down from 33 points and 62.4 percent last round. Gary Harris has done well fighting over screens in order to breathe down Lillard’s neck on his pull-up jumpers, and Nikola Jokic has been serviceable dropping to the paint to deter Lillard from getting to the rim. Jokic has help, though.

The Nuggets are treating Al-Farouq Aminu like he doesn’t exist when he spots up in the corner and clogging the lane for Lillard’s drives. In both clips above, Aminu is wide open only because his defender, Paul Millsap, is plopped in the paint to halt Lillard’s drive. The Blazers’ spacing in the second play is poor regardless because Moe Harkless is in the left dunker’s spot rather than spotting up behind the 3-point arc. That reflects one of Portland’s biggest issues: a lack of reliable shooters at the forward spots.

Harkless has shot 32.6 percent from 3 in his four seasons and playoffs with the Blazers, while Aminu shot just 35.7 percent over that same time frame. While they aren’t liabilities like Andre Roberson or Tony Allen, the Nuggets have been willing to give up those shots to those players if it means containing Lillard.

One lineup tweak the Blazers could make is using a small backcourt of Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Seth Curry or Rodney Hood more frequently. That would give Portland a trio of shooters and Aminu, alongside a shooting center in Zach Collins, or another non-shooter like Enes Kanter. The Blazers have had some success in doing this: They have outscored the Nuggets by 17.8 points per 100 possessions when Lillard is on the floor with Collins, and they get outscored by 7.3 when Lillard is paired with Kanter. Though the sample size with Collins is only 39 minutes, it would be worth trying more considering its promising results so far.

Much like in the clip above from early in Game 4, Aminu could instead hang around the dunker’s spot, where he would be available for dump-off passes and ready to attack the offensive boards:

Or Lillard could simply start hitting perimeter shots again. They’re available, and he’s taking them. But Lillard has hit just 25.7 percent of his 3s and just 35 percent of his midrange attempts this series. During the regular season, Lillard hit 36.9 percent of his 3s and 46.1 percent of his midrange attempts. The NBA playoffs often require major system changes, as we’ve seen in these playoffs, but a lot of the time, it just comes down to which team performs at the higher level. The Blazers and Nuggets are tied at two games apiece, despite Lillard’s underperforming. If Dame Time hits soon, Denver will be the team in need of an adjustment.