Playoffs progressing from the Second Round to the Conference Finals mean that the level of play in the N.B.A. gets higher and higher. Especially in the Western Conference, every team is very talented and winning and losing hinges on minute defense. Everyone knows each other’s sets so good defenses will strive to eliminate the primary option; great defenses will take away more than that so it becomes incumbent upon the offense to identify the open man and move the ball to them, institute new wrinkles that counter the counter and utilize evolving and improving athletic talents as they develop.
Always Find the Open Man and Make the Extra Pass: In previous years, LeBron James was accused of passive play during the playoffs. Since his first season in Miami, he has learned to take greater initiative when games matter more. In Game 4 against Brooklyn, the Heat place four shooters on the perimeter and give James the ball in the middle. James discerns how the defense is collapsing and moves the ball to Mario Chalmers on the wing. Chalmers made a similar shot to force overtime in the 2008 National Championship game but he now understands that the highest percentage shot for his team in the open three in the corner so he draws the defense and swings the ball to Chris Bosh who hits the three-point shot.
Attack a Mismatch but Don’t Force It: Certainly, if an offensive player realizes that they possess an advantage over the man guarding them, they should seek to exploit that edge. However, the defensive squad also recognizes the advantage and will help aggressively. What begins as a simple 1-on-1 isolation or post-up can transform into one ballhandler versus three defenders as teammates stand and watch. In a Game 4 win over the Wizards, Pacers forward David West is guarded by John Wall at the top of the key. West backs down the much smaller player but help arrives and he kicks the ball out to Lance Stephenson, who moves the ball to Paul George in the corner. Roy Hibbert observed this action and sets a little Hammer screen on the help defender so there is nobody available to recover to the corner in time.
Adapt to the Personnel on the Court: To assume a more threatening form, The Clippers set up in a “Horns” alignment with Chris Paul at the top and Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford on the elbows. The second big Glen Davis is in the corner – not as a shooter but as a decoy – and Matt Barnes is on the weak-side. If nothing materializes out of the first screen, the objective is to provide the Sixth Man of the Year Crawford with the ball at the top of the key against a slower defender. Paul drives right and uses a Griffin screen. If Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were on the court, this would likely be followed by a roll to the rim but instead Griffin sets a pin-down screen on Crawford’s man, who was somewhat drawn towards the drive. Crawford catches and shoots at the top of the key and coverts a four-point play. Click here to open the video clip in a new window.
Actualize the Potential of All Players: In the postseason spotlight, many young players shine, taking advantage of the opportunity to make a big play when the moment arrives. San Antonio is very disciplined about what types of shots are suitable for each player and they have gradually increased the role of Kawhi Leonard to match the progression in his abilities. Last year he may have been mostly limited to some cuts and corner threes in addition to transition but now he is able to drive the ball and shoot from further away. A traditional Spurs set is zippering Manu Ginobili to the top of the key to receive the ball and running Tony Parker off a triple baseline screen. Normally Leonard (or another wing) sets the middle screen under the hoop. This time, it is more of a “Floppy” look and Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter set pin-down screens. Leonard confidently catches and shoots from the wing.
Adjust to the Defense: The N.B.A. is a screen and roll league so there are multiple methods to execute and defend the ball. Repeating the same action and expecting different results is the definition of insanity so teams must expand their repertoire as the defense curtails effective options. In Game 5, Indiana tries to ice the Washington screen so Marcin Gortat and John Wall alter their tactics. C.J. Watson has shifted to the high side to cut off the middle drive but Gortat sets the screen on the baseline side. Roy Hibbert has sagged to the elbow to cut off the drive on the baseline but Wall exploits his quickness and cuts back to the middle of the key. Hibbert follows as Gortat rolls hard to the open area near the basket. The defense cannot recover and rotate in time and Gortat scores the basket as he is fouled.
As Sun-Tzu said in The Art of War:
“Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.”
Otherwise explained by Publilius Syrus:
“It is a bad plan that admits no modification.”
No basketball team can achieve a championship without modifying, revising and varying its strategies to suit personnel, the situation and previous plays in the series. The teams that are still alive in the playoffs are the ones who have successfully done this while remaining true to their strengths and core priniciples.