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The Key to Playoff Upsets? Beating the Blitz.

Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, and Bradley Beal all have the firepower to make life difficult for their opponents in the play-in and/or playoffs. But to pull off any upsets, they’ll need to manage defenses’ all-out coverages.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One of the defining questions of playoff basketball is how players and teams will respond to pressure. But there are different kinds of pressures. There’s the pressure of a big game. There’s pressure to hit a game-winning shot to beat the buzzer. And then there’s strategic pressure—with teams trying to put pressure on the rim on offense, or apply pressure to elite scorers on defense. This season, though, no guards have been under more pressure in the pick-and-roll than Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, and Bradley Beal.

At some point during the play-in tournament or the postseason, Curry, Lillard, and Beal will likely face a moment like this, with two defenders attacking them:

This is a blitz. It’s an aggressive pick-and-roll defense in which both players defending the screen pressure the ball handler to attempt to force the ball out of their hands. Teams rarely blitz because it strains the entire defense and forces players to be perfect with rotations. It’s a high-risk, high-reward style of play.

When facing a pick-and-roll, defenses leaguewide blitzed only 3 percent of the time, according to Second Spectrum. Switching screens and dropping the big man to the paint are the more prominent schemes. This season, pick-and-roll screens were defended with a drop 58 percent of the time (19 times more often than a blitz), and they switched on 18 percent of chances (six times more often than a blitz). Teams have increasingly switched on screens in recent years to keep the rest of the defense out of rotation and to contain perimeter threats.

But Curry, Lillard, and Beal are treated differently than the NBA norm. They were the only three players who were blitzed in the pick-and-roll more often than they were switched against, according to Second Spectrum. Combined, defenses blitzed them in the pick-and-roll 16 percent of the time, and switched only 9 percent of chances.

Trying to Stop Elite Scoring Guards

Player Blitzes Faced Switches Faced Pick-and-Rolls Faced
Player Blitzes Faced Switches Faced Pick-and-Rolls Faced
Damian Lillard 406 253 2,829
Stephen Curry 328 213 1,642
Bradley Beal 218 90 1,430

Curry saw a higher percentage of blitzes than anyone else in the league, at 20 percent of his total pick-and-rolls. Lillard faced more total blitzes than any other player in the NBA this season, at 406. Beal faced a share of blitzes nearly equal to Lillard, at 15 percent.

In order to escape the play-in tournament and upset higher-seeded teams in the postseason, all three of their teams may need to find a way to overcome a blitzing defense. It might happen in just one game, or even a single pivotal fourth quarter. But whenever the blitz does come, the way these star guards and their teammates respond will play a significant role in their team’s chances of making a run.

No Stopping Steph Curry

Curry is facing the highest frequency of blitzes in his career. With Kevin Durant gone and Klay Thompson out for the season, defenses don’t have to stress about threats off the ball as much any more. But James Wiseman’s injury has been a blessing in disguise, as it’s at least allowed the Warriors to play more like their past selves.

Since Wiseman’s last game on April 10, Steve Kerr has played smaller lineups and a tighter rotation, while largely sticking to the motion style that led to great success in past iterations of the roster. Curry is also receiving a huge uptick in touches, and the way he’s playing, it doesn’t matter what offense the Warriors have run or what defense they’ve faced. With Curry handling the ball more, we’re also seeing Draymond Green screening more often for him.

Before Wiseman’s season ended, Green screened for Curry 9.2 times per game, and the Warriors scored 1.01 points per chance. Since then, they’ve linked up 13.2 times per game and scored 1.26 points per chance. The two of them have dismantled all types of defenses, especially the blitz, logging 1.4 points per chance.

The Jazz, a potential first-round playoff opponent for the Warriors, blitzed pick-and-rolls only 79 times this season and 40 of them were against the Warriors and Trail Blazers. Steph and Dray showed how to have success in the clip above, with Curry drawing two defenders and promptly whipping a left-handed pass in stride to Green, who scored inside despite contact at the rim.

Sometimes, however, a clean pass might not be available to a rolling Green. Instead, the Warriors will use a defense’s aggression against them.

In the clip above, the Jazz have Derrick Favors already zoning near the paint to protect against a pass to Green. Instead of diving to the paint, Green stands near the 3-point line to make himself available for a pass that’ll go straight into a handoff back to Curry. Sometimes, this will result in a 3 thanks to their timing, skill, and chemistry. But with two defenders scrambling to recover, Curry pump-fakes a 3 and dribbles by them. Defenses will happily accept a floater. But it’s still a shot that Curry can also make at a high rate.

Golden State will first feel pressure in the play-in tournament with a game against the Lakers, who defended Curry pick-and-rolls more conservatively during the regular season. But it’s been two months since they last played, and the Lakers favored more aggressive defenses against most opponents. Curry and Green have connected for big buckets countless times in pivotal moments of past playoff games, and the moment will come again soon.

Rushing Dame Time

During Portland’s 10-2 stretch to close the season, it had the league’s best offensive rating, and Lillard averaged 30.3 points. A significant amount of Lillard’s success came out of the pick-and-roll.

The Blazers ran 36 pick-and-rolls per game with Lillard as the ball handler over this stretch, and he made defenses pay for dropping their big man, scoring 1.2 points per chance against the coverage. Lillard also sliced up switches, logging 1.1 points per chance. But during this time frame, the Blazers struggled to score efficiently when Lillard got blitzed. It’s been a challenge all season (only 0.98 points per chance); Lillard is forced to pass and there’s no guarantee he’ll get the ball back.

Lately, the Warriors have been able to thrive when Curry gets blitzed because of his outlets. Lillard doesn’t have quite as many playmakers around him on the court, which is why his first-round opponent, the Nuggets, could end up pressuring him. This season, the Nuggets blitzed pick-and-rolls 8 percent of the time, the third-highest rate in the NBA. They didn’t do it frequently in their matchup against Lillard this season since their base defense is to drop Nikola Jokic to the paint. But because of Portland’s subpar track record against the blitz, teams have often ramped up the pressure on Dame in high-stakes games. The Nuggets could choose this route in the first round.

Even when the Blazers score against the blitz, like in some of the clips above, it usually requires a ton of crisp ball movement or for Lillard to make a play at the end of the clock. In the playoffs, the Blazers will be better off just letting him isolate. This season, 25 players have logged at least 300 isolations, and Lillard ranks fourth in scoring efficiency, with the Blazers as a whole scoring 1.1 points per isolation. If Portland suspects a team will blitz, a screen may never come because Lillard doesn’t need one to make a play. Dame Time has proved he should never be counted out.

Putting Beal Under Pressure

Pressure hasn’t fazed Beal in the pick-and-roll this season; when blitzed, the Wizards have scored 1.06 points per chance. It sometimes seems as if they invite it:

The Pacers had been frequently blitzing Beal during a recent fourth quarter, and in the clip above, the Wizards run a pick-and-roll knowing it’s coming. Robin Lopez screens for Beal, who orchestrates against a double way out on the perimeter, ultimately leading to a wide-open 3.

Sometimes, the screener will dive harder to the paint to cause the defense to help, freeing a perimeter shooter:

In the bottom right-hand corner of the court, Kent Bazemore is faced with a tough decision: help inside on Daniel Gafford, a bouncy lob threat, or Davis Bertans, who shot 41 percent off catch-and-shoot 3s on the move, according to Second Spectrum.

The Wizards may not see too much blitzing early on, though, because of their matchups. If the Wizards beat the Celtics on Tuesday in the 7-8 matchup, they’ll earn the 7-seed and a first-round series against the Nets. Both Boston and Brooklyn blitzed at a near league-average rate. If the Wizards lose to Boston, they’ll face the winner of the Hornets-Pacers game on Thursday, both of whom rarely blitzed. Strategy can change because of new circumstances, though. Beal is dealing with a hamstring injury, and though he played through it on Sunday, it impacted his play.

The fact that the Wizards are even in the play-in is an accomplishment after beginning the season 17-32. They closed with a 17-6 record, which Beal says is who they really are. “We firmly believe we’re one of the best teams in the East. We’re definitely gonna be scary moving forward,” Beal said after the Wizards beat the Hornets. “Just imagine if we had this team the whole season. The story would be a little different.”

Since 1984, the first year that the playoffs expanded to 16 teams, only 10 7- or 8-seeds have pulled off an upset in the first round of the playoffs. Washington wouldn’t have strong odds against Philadelphia or Brooklyn. But Beal and the Wizards have been hot. And no one should ever discount a team with Curry or Lillard. To make any noise in the playoffs, there will come a moment when these underdog-leading stars will have to beat the blitz.