Coaching is a lot like chess. You have to think several moves ahead, see the entire board and understand the value of each piece at your disposal. Anticipating your opponent’s moves and trapping them in their own style is considered masterful.
Postseason basketball is beautiful for that reason. The players are the ones executing and making the heroics, but the coaches are the ones choosing the methods of deployment. In a series where adjustments are not only common but necessary, the tactical methods come to the forefront.
We’re already seeing some brilliant adjustments, daring strategies, or dilemmas with tough fixes that coaches have to grapple with as their series take shape:
1. The Nets, Sagging Back and Not Stopping
Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson has not been shy about letting his strategy known. The Nets have left both Philadelphia 76ers stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid on the perimeter and rarely left the paint to contest their attempts.
Even after surrendering 145 points in Game 2, Atkinson gave no indication that the strategy would change:
— Dave Uram (@MrUram) April 15, 2019
There are no hidden tricks or nuances to how Brooklyn has defended the young superstars. They just back off and dare them to shoot.
Embiid, who went 0-5 from three in Game 1, was a -17 in 24 minutes during the series’ opening game. He flipped the switch in Game 2, finishing as a +26 in 21 minutes without attempting a three-pointer. Meanwhile, Ben Simmons posted a triple-double and shot 8-12 from the field.
Is the Nets strategy really working? The Sixers have faced these types of pressures before, seeing their two top offensive talents dared to shoot as a means of disrupting their rhythm. Embiid fell into the trap in the first quarter of Game 1, taking four of his five treys during the opening frame and all as wide open looks:
The Sixers took 19 unguarded jump shots in Game 1, according to Synergy Sports Tech, only making five. Despite that woeful number, the Nets only one by nine. Brooklyn’s offense was superb in the second half, holding onto the early lead they built from the Sixers’ poor shooting and shot selection.
Embiid was much more disciplined in Game 2. Instead of taking the shots Brooklyn dared, he used the space as a runway to get downhill. The head of steam he built didn’t carry him out of control but got him to create physicality and more space to finish at the rim:
Simmons has been used to this coverage since the moment he joined the league as well.
He can typically glide through the smallest creases, has become a functional option standing on the baseline and is too talented of a passer. When defenses sag too low, there’s no opportunity to provide help. By the time someone can react to the initial movement, Simmons is already at the can:
Sixers coach Brett Brown hasn’t simply sat back and let Simmons freestyle. Twice in Game 2, Brown called for a unique pitch action that clears the middle of the floor and lets Simmons hit a popping Redick while simultaneously serving as a screener:
Teams that drastically drop off certain players can be thwarted in unscripted opportunities. Early transition pushes and lots of movement create chaos among defenders that try to match up. Since they are pointing at bodies from a distance, it’s hard to know who is guarding whom, especially if a switch occurs.
The Sixers were able to get a wide-open three for Tobias Harris because of this. Simmons, completely unguarded atop the key, can easily identify the opening because he isn’t pressured:
Despite what Atkinson said in his postgame presser, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nets started to pressure a bit more on the perimeter. They swung momentum in their favor by stealing a game in Philly, but the underdog primarily must be the aggressor. If the Sixers torch them again while they sit back and give Philly a runway to attack, the advantage they gained in Game 1 will be gone.
2. Nuggets Guarding LaMarcus Aldridge in the Post
The San Antonio Spurs offense isn’t afraid of mid-range jumpers. Two of their best players, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, love isolations and post-ups on the left offensive block. All season, Gregg Popovich has fed the post in hopes that his two All-Stars will carry the offense.
Through two games against the Denver Nuggets, Aldridge is a putrid 2-for-15 on post-ups, however. Where has this come from?
Certainly, he’s missed some makeable shots, but the Nuggets need some credit for how they have defended both he and DeRozan down low.
When going one-on-one with Aldridge on the left block, the Nuggets have severely played his inside shoulder. The hope is to force Aldridge to spin back to the baseline. If he doesn’t, he’s getting pushed so far from the basket that his shot would be a lower percentage while he’s also getting forced into the help defense.
Watch for how the Nuggets, especially Nikola Jokic, can absorb the first bump from Aldridge’s left shoulder as he tries to clear space:
During the regular season, Aldridge was 10-for-13 when trying to score against a double-team. That’s just an absurd rate that likely has no bearing on actual strategy.
The more telling numbers about doubling Aldridge? The Spurs’ adjusted field goal percentage from his kick-outs on the left offensive block (50 percent) is the exact same as when he plays one-on-one through the post (50 percent). Translation: no strategy is necessarily better than the other.
So why not use both?
The Nuggets have double-teamed Aldridge on the left block at random times, trying to catch Aldridge once he’s begun to dribble. The Spurs don’t flank him with elite perimeter threats at all times, meaning some lineups lend themselves to poor spacing if the Spurs’ star gets doubled.
The only counter for Aldridge is that spin to his right shoulder, resulting in a tough fadeaway:
We’ve seen Aldridge make that shot a ton throughout his career, but the Nuggets are playing the percentages.
He shot 45.9 percent on the season from that left block when turning to his right, lower than his normal post-up rate. The Nuggets must continue to switch between pressuring Aldridge and forcing him baseline to his left if they are going to neutralize him as a threat.
Credit Jokic, Mason Plumlee and the entire Nuggets coaching staff for how detail-oriented they have been with Aldridge.
3. The Siakam-PG ball screen
Credit is given where credit is due. Jonathan Isaac has been fantastic defensively for the Orlando Magic.
In every way, he has made Pascal Siakam work for anything he’s gotten through two games, and their battle has been one of the most interesting subplots of the series. Between Isaac and Aaron Gordon, the Magic have two fantastic threats that can neutralize the Toronto Raptors’ unique mismatch options.
One is stuck on Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors’ top threat. The other has been all over Siakam like a cheap suit.
The Magic have length at positions 2 thru 5, thanks to the likes of long-armed Terrence Ross, the athletic Khem Birch, hard-working Amile Jefferson and even the scrappy Evan Fournier. Head coach Steve Clifford can toggle between switches and aggressive schemes, trusting his guys will do enough individually to mask some of the purely athletic breakdowns from Nikola Vucevic.
One player Clifford has not found a way to protect? Point guard DJ Augustin.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse has opened up the playbook to utilize his point guards (whoever Augustin or Michael Carter-Williams is guarding) as a screener. The effect is two-fold: The Magic point guard either has to switch onto Siakam, or Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet get open pick-and-pops.
The action is a tough cover because it’s so unorthodox, but also because Siakam hasn’t been guarded tight behind the three-point line. He is a wonderful shooting threat from the corners, but his range, according to Cleaning the Glass, has not extended to the wings and top of the key. In fact, he does not even look to attempt them:
Nurse has made the right tactical adjustments to free up Siakam as a ball handler without worrying whether the Magic pressure him atop the key. Toronto didn’t score from this action in Game 2, missing a few open attempts and executing incorrectly on one possession when Lowry had Evan Fournier cross-matched on him.
Still, the quality of looks that result should be lauded and keep this action within their playbook:
The Magic still don’t have consistent coverage. Sometimes they’ve looked to trap, others hard hedge, and others stay so far underneath Siakam. The play may have its most useful tenets close to the sidelines, where defenders tend to pressure Siakam more and refuse to drop back to protect the lane.
Keep your eyes on those wonky, inverted pick-and-rolls as the series reverts back to Orlando.
4. targeting steph curry
My TBW teammate Jeff Siegel noted after their Game 1 loss that the L.A. Clippers have a successful pick-and-roll attack that could serve as a blueprint for the rest of the West in attacking Golden State. Game 2 featured a different formula, one that may work even better for the Clippers thanks to their unique personnel.
The first game of a series is always a feeling out process between what the coaching staffs predict their opponent will do and what they actually do. If one defensive matchup is different, the whole plan of attack can be thrown awry.
That’s why I love watching Game 2 tactical adjustments: they reflect a more nuanced method of attack since there’s a general understanding of how the team is going to be defended. Putting up 135 points in Game 2 shows that the Clippers did their homework.
Golden State predictably tried to hide Stephen Curry, their weakest perimeter defender, by placing him on Patrick Beverley.
Beverley is the Clippers’ least offensive threat and an inconsistent three-point shooter in the starting lineup. He was never going to be a focal point of the attack.
However, Doc Rivers refused to use Beverley as a mismatch trying to jam the ball down Curry’s throat. He didn’t want to slow his equal-opportunity offense by ramming pick-and-rolls all night. So he kept the flow and used LAC’s many other shooters as decoys.
Once the defense’s eyes shifted to that decoy, Beverley would set an off-ball screen for Gallinari, popping him to the perimeter:
The strategy was clearly targeted at Curry, trying to force him to hedge and momentarily lose his man, or switch onto the larger Gallinari and be torched in a mismatch. The Clippers even went after Curry in ball screens with Gallinari, forcing Curry to expose himself to an action he’s not effective at guarding:
Credit the physicality and intuition of Beverley, who often will freestyle without a play call and get these situations to arise. Smart players who can improvise are the hardest to guard when recognizing patterns that lead to a specific action. They simply take coaches out of the equation.
Without a pattern, there is nothing to tip the Warriors off that a certain play is coming.
The willingness of Beverley to literally bearhug Kevin Durant and disallow him from staying with Gallinari allows the Clippers to attack in this way. They didn’t only do this with Gallinari, who was the most obvious early initiator. Once Lou Williams got going, the strategy remained the same to get Klay Thompson off their best individual scorer and force Steph to guard him instead.
Late in the game while the Clippers were mounting their comeback, both Beverley and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would find themselves as a Klay Thompson battering ram, hoping Curry would be forced to stay on Lou Will:
Curry has been the victim of targeting for years. However, the Clippers are rather unscripted as to when they utilize the attacks. Sometimes it’s from a play call that is heavily filled with misdirection. Other times it’s Doc Rivers letting Patrick Beverley create the mismatch. Either way, Kerr and the Warriors need to go back to the drawing board.
5. houston’s attacking rudy gobert brilliantly
Dan Clayton, who covers the Utah Jazz, quoted Ricky Rubio after their Game 2 loss. His words makes it sound like not all the Jazz are buying into their strategy on defending Harden:
This quote by Ricky though….
Holy crap. That’s a message to someone. Or to a lot of someones. pic.twitter.com/hRlAU6vmlo
— dan clayton (@danclayt0n) April 18, 2019
There’s obviously some truth to that statement. The Jazz have been torched, and in a predictable manner, as they change up their scheme to combat the world’s greatest scorer. I
n a nutshell, the Jazz are picking Harden up as soon as he crosses half-court, denying him when he doesn’t have the ball, and forcing him right when he does. Once he drives, the Jazz are flooding the middle of the floor with a big body like Rudy Gobert or Derrick Favors so Harden doesn’t have a clear path to a layup.
But the Rockets are shredding this coverage.
They surround Harden with shooters in the corners and wings, and put big men Clint Capela or Kenneth Faried on the baseline in what is known as the dunk box. The corner behind Capela is filled with a shooter. When the Jazz big leaves Capela to take away the rim and open up early to Harden, Utah is forced to rotate from that filled corner and smother Capela in the post so he doesn’t get a dunk.
That rotation is a necessity, but it puts pressure on the next wing defender to cover both the corner and the wing. That guy has routinely been Donovan Mitchell, who hasn’t been so good about rotating and preventing an open shot:
This is the playoffs, and the margin for error on the road is so slim that this lack of effort, even if partially by design, is fairly disgusting.
If Mitchell were the on the receiving end of Rubio’s commentary, that would not come as a surprise. He’s certainly in a tough spot, being asked to momentarily guard two players, but that isn’t incredibly unique to this type of coverage.
The issue in the clips above is the drastic nature of Mitchell’s body position: Sometimes he’s denying on the wing and unable to see the corner. Other times his chest is facing the middle so drastically that he cannot turn his body and sprint to a kickout quickly enough.
To call Mitchell the primary problem would be an oversight, however. The Rockets are well-prepared for having Harden forced away from the basket and the planting-nature of Rudy Gobert near the rim.
Chris Paul and Eric Gordon have done their job in early ball screens or rim attacks to draw Gobert away from the rim. When he switches on them, two things occur: isolations where Gobert is guarding an elite scoring guard, or the big man is no longer in a position to challenge Harden if he’s forced to his weak hand at the rim.
Paul has been a maestro at forcing Gobert to him, and the rest of the Rockets will clear out an entire side of the floor to let CP3 work:
This series is far from over despite a dominating first two games from Houston. The series shifts back to Utah, and Quin Snyder and his staff will go back to the drawing board to find a solution to their James Harden problem.
If the coaches do not like the effort and attention to detail, then they may scrap how dramatically they force Harden to his off-hand. The result could mean more snaking and attacking Gobert through switches, though.
It’s officially “pick your poison” time for the Jazz.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com stats, or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of April 18, 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.