For those who enjoy watching the chess match between one coach and another, a playoff series provides the opportunity to see it unfold in a way no other league can offer. Coaches have time to adjust, with multiple games in a series and days off to build their scheme. After 82 games, few set plays, defensive tweaks or stylistic tendencies are truly going to catch anyone off guard.
It becomes all about who can execute despite defenses working to take these very strengths away.
I broke down the Eastern Conference already, but the Western Conference is all about which team can serve as a threat to the Golden State Warriors. On the path to stopping them from their fifth-consecutive Finals appearance, many great matchups will determine who is the last squad standing:
1. Golden State Warriors vs. 8. Los Angeles Clippers
After winning three titles in the last four years, it’s pretty clear that the Warriors have a playoff mode they can just turn on. How DeMarcus Cousins fits in that group still remains to be seen. From a sheer talent standpoint, however, this series is a no-brainer pick for the Warriors, but don’t overlook how well the Clippers are playing lately, particularly on offense.
Golden State Warriors: Boogie’s Post Passing
There’s this narrative out there that DeMarcus Cousins is not a good teammate, along with a fear that he’s the cook in the kitchen that brings one too many. On the court, Cousins has assimilated quite well with the Warriors free-flowing offense.
Over the last few years, he has turned himself into a lethal three-point threat, and he’s such a dynamic scorer at any spot on the floor, he’s even more of a beast to guard.
For some reason, Cousins still doesn’t get enough credit for how great of a passer he is. When the Warriors play through him on the interior, Cousins is not a black hole that tries to get his points and prove he’s still an All-Star. Instead, he feels the defense as it comes at him and makes perfect reads to the many cutters within Golden State’s offense:
Literal brilliance. These passes show so many of Cousins’ great traits: Touch and vision, staying one step ahead, making moves after being full-fronted and catching a lob, seeing and anticipating a double team. He’s such a good facilitator that the Warriors now have an added threat to their offense versus prior years.
Imagine trying to guard Cousins on the block while Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson roam the perimeter.
Los Angeles Clippers: Shamet off screens
The Clippers have a rookie backcourt tandem in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet. While SGA is the defensive stalwart and becoming an effective creator, Shamet is the sniper of the group. To be blunt, if the Clippers are going to pull off an upset, they need to make a lot of shots, and Shamet is a big part of that.
Since joining the team at the All-Star Break (via trade with the Philadelphia 76ers), Shamet has been utilized as a pure shooter, with Doc Rivers running many actions to get him the ball. One such example, which gives Shamet the option to choose which side of the floor he comes off, is a floppy action, where he runs off a single screen to the perimeter:
Thinking about the defensive matchups, there’s nobody for Stephen Curry to guard other than Shamet. While Curry is used to running around screens, the Clippers may be able to tire him out by making him chase Shamet all game.
The rest of the Clippers’ main lineup is simply too large or dynamic for Curry to mark, so if Rivers finds a way to exploit and attack him on defense, it will be through screening actions involving the rookie from Wichita State.
4. Houston Rockets vs. 5. Utah Jazz
The NBA’s two best teams since mid-February square off in a wonderful first-round series. The Jazz are tasked with slowing the league’s leading scorer, James Harden. Despite his insane scoring volume, the Rockets are not a one-man show, however.
Chris Paul and Eric Gordon are able to play at a high level, and a Clint Capela-Rudy Gobert matchup should be great. The Jazz must solve the puzzle for defending Harden, but also must make plenty of shots to contend with Houston’s underrated defense.
Houston Rockets: Getting Harden Easy Buckets
Perhaps there is no better “difficult shot-maker” in the world than James Harden. His amazing deceleration on drives, the unguardable step back, the getting to the free throw line–he scores in so many impossible ways. There’s little doubt that he is going to get his points, despite being guarded in multiple ways. Traps and double-teams, face-guarding and switching on ball screens to encourage isolations are all ways to attempt this.
Regardless of what the Jazz do, the Rockets must find ways to get Harden enough easy baskets. Houston certainly has its eyes on a championship, and it must ensure Harden doesn’t wear down (again) before the team can even get that far.
One way is to run a backdoor set, anticipating an overplay where defenders try to prevent Harden from catching the ball. The Rockets have one such example, which works to spring Harden free from the corner:
I’m curious to see who the Jazz utilize as the primary defender on Harden. My expectation is that Ricky Rubio will guard him while Donovan Mitchell spends time on Chris Paul, but adjustments will certainly be made throughout the series.
Utah Jazz: The Gobert Dunk Play
Quin Snyder is my favorite X’s and O’s coach, for far too many reasons to list. The Jazz run awesome stuff for Donovan Mitchell, as well as shooters Joe Ingles and Kyle Korver. As their offense starts to revolve around Mitchell and so much attention is paid to him in a series, the auxiliary pieces get ignored and have their time to shine.
The Jazz offense is a free-flowing base that is predicated on several similar movements and perimeter reversals, avoiding walk-up ball screens and isolations. Defenses must focus on the cuts and repositioning of primary scorers like Mitchell, and that helps the auxiliary guys get open. One such way Rudy Gobert is sprung, which is wildly effective, is a back screen set where he reverses the ball from the top of the key and immediately comes off a back screen:
Clint Capela is an athletic, fantastic player that likely will pressure Gobert on the perimeter. If he does and tries to force turnovers with his athletic advantage, this play call could be a great counter.
Combine that with how notorious James Harden is for poor weak-side rotations and the Jazz could get a few easy dunks. Remember, the Rockets are equally notorious for switching ball actions 1 thru 5. If the Jazz aren’t willing to play through Gobert with those mismatches—even if he is not their top offensive option—then the Rockets will have an easy time containing Utah.
3. Portland Trail Blazers vs. 6. Oklahoma City Thunder
The narrative of this postseason series has drastically changed over the last few weeks.
First, Portland center Jusuf Nurkic suffered a season-ending injury, leading to the Blazers needing veteran journeyman Enes Kanter. Meanwhile, the Thunder recently rebounded after a cold spell to become the hottest team in the Western Conference heading into the postseason. Oklahoma City is suffocating defensively when at their best, so this series could come down to how well they shoot it.
Portland Trail Blazers: Kanter’s Ball Screen Defense
There’s no easy way to say it—the Blazers’ hopes rest on the defensive aptitude of their center. Enes Kanter, a perennial disaster on that end, yet he’s slotted into that starting role by sheer necessity for his size, scoring and effective rebounding.
Kanter is a former Thunder player. They know all too well that he has a bullseye on his chest whenever he’s on the floor. With the brutish screening of Steven Adams and the downhill ability of Russell Westbrook, the Thunder will apply pressure early and often.
I’m curious to see what scheme coach Terry Stotts favors in order to protect Kanter. In the past, the Blazers have run a “drop” against ball screens, keeping their center close to the rim. Two years ago, (while with the Thunder and going against the Rockets), Kanter was absolutely exploited within that scheme:
As much as the Blazers have an All-NBA talent in Damian Lillard, he is not the key to this series. Oklahoma City has enough elite defenders to toss at Lillard that the Blazers offense needs to diversify.
Kanter is a solid offensive option to take pressure off their backcourt, but if he bleeds points on the other end and is a net-negative, Lillard and the injured CJ McCollum will be overly burdened.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Paul George, Up the Gut
If the Thunder are going to attack Portland through ball screens, they won’t be all of the same variety. Billy Donovan has joined the trend of throwing a great deal of “Spain” pick-and-rolls into his playbook.
Spain is an action where a flat ball screen occurs at the top of the key, while a shooter sets a back screen on the big’s defender. As the ball gets driven to the rim, the shooter raises to the top of the key, creating a difficult angle for defenders to get through.
Paul George fills the role of the shooter, hitting 38.6 percent from deep this year. In spot-up situations, George has an adjusted field goal percentage (aFG%) of 64.8 percent, an incredibly high rate. He’s 45.3 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, and he’s open frequently thanks to the sheer speed Westbrook drives to the rim with.
The Spain action looks something like this:
George has a rare ability to get his momentum stopped while running away from the rim. He plants his feet and still fires an accurate attempt. He’s got an incredible rhythm, and with as many open looks as he gets off this action, he has all the time needed to get an accurate attempt.
Good luck to the Blazers in stopping the Spain pick-and-roll. This will be Thunder bread-and-butter for the series.
2. Denver Nuggets vs. 7. San Antonio Spurs
While the Nuggets are sliding of late, they still have first-team All-NBA candidate Nikola Jokic, two scrappy scoring guards in Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, and cagey veteran Paul Millsap.
Surprisingly, the Nuggets play slower than this opponent in terms of pace. Those veteran-filled Spurs teams are gone, now led by LaMarcus Aldridge and an underrated backcourt. If the Spurs can make Jokic’s life difficult, that may be the key to pulling off a first-round upset.
Denver Nuggets: Using the Post as a Decoy
These teams play a rather similar style, actually. Both have bigs as offensive focal points, playing through them in the post.
Jokic is as much a facilitator (7.3 assists per game) as a scorer (20.1 points). The Nuggets run plays through him in isolation, trusting that a quality shot will arise either one-on-one or for a teammate once the defense collapses. Don’t forget about Paul Millsap, either. He’s shooting 49.6 percent on post-ups and garnering over 1.0 points per possession (PPP) in such scenarios.
The challenge for the Spurs will be deciphering when the post entry is designed to be a decoy, and where scripted off-ball movement is what the Nuggets are really looking for. In those instances, San Antonio cannot over-commit to stopping the interior, as there’s never any intention to score.
Take this set, for example. After throwing the ball into either Millsap or Jokic, the Nuggets try to get their best shooter (Jamal Murray) a quick look from three. Murray sets the cross screen to get the post open—common within the Nuggets’ offense. Then he sprints up to the free throw line, momentarily fakes setting a back screen, and darts off another screen from the Nuggets’ second big:
That’s beautiful basketball.
The Nuggets are slightly better than average as a shooting group, but they rarely make mistakes in the way of turnovers. The Spurs are dead last in forcing turnovers and don’t have the DNA to force many. If the Nuggets, particularly Jokic, are comfortable running their sets and moving the ball, this offense will pick up to pre- All-Star break levels.
San Antonio Spurs: DeRozan Bully Ball
At this point, we know who the Spurs’ top two options are and how they are going to attack.
Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are mid-range specialists, thriving in isolation, mismatch post-ups and with time on their side. The Nuggets have the size and interior defenders to contend with Aldridge. They are, however, smaller on the wings and in the backcourt, making DeRozan the obvious focal point for the Spurs.
According to Synergy, 28.7 percent of his scoring has come from isolation or post-ups. DeRozan loves the left offensive block, where his right hand is used for driving middle and he can make cross-court passes with his dominant hand.
When he gets to the left block, DeRozan’s patented move is a turn-around jumper: He spins baseline, momentarily exposing his right shoulder to the defender. His shake is so quick—and defenders are glued to his left shoulder as he threatens a middle drive—that this shot gets off more times than not:
The Russian Judge gave that a score of 9.8 thanks to degree of difficulty.
In a postseason series, there are ways to take away that move by anticipating the spin and jumping back to it. 60 of DeRozan’s 98 post-ups on the left block end in him spinning to that right shoulder, so you can bet the Nuggets will be prepared in their scouting reports.
The only issue? Lunging too much at the jumper opens numerous counters for a crafty veteran such as DeRozan. His favorite is a nasty up-and-under, where a believable pump-fake gets defenders to leave their feet. Once airborne, all DeRozan needs to do is step through and he’s got a nice finish at the rim:
I’m curious to see who the Nuggets use as DeRozan’s primary defender.
Will Barton has the size to draw the matchup, but he is susceptible to biting on said pump fakes. If the Spurs can feed DeRozan and face single-coverage on that left offensive block, they have a good chance of taking down the Nuggets in round one.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com stats, or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of April 11, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.