The NBA playoffs are all about forcing your opponent into uncomfortable situations that cause them to abandon whatever got them to where they are. While most teams play largely the same way during their 82 regular-season games, the structure of the postseason often forces them to abandon certain tactics very quickly. Because there are several days between games and only one opponent to worry about, teams can identify and exploit weaknesses over and over, forcing the other team to scrap its usual plan and find something else. The best coaches recognize what they have to do right away and rectify the issue. The worst don’t.
Through the early part of the 2017 postseason, we’ve seen several examples of coaching adjustments that worked, some that didn’t, and some that never happened at all. Here are a few that stood out.
Thunder-Rockets: OKC’s pick-and-roll defense
During the regular season, NBA defenses discovered that the best of a bunch of bad options against James Harden pick-and-rolls was switching—provided you had bigs who were light on their feet and could do at least a passable job of hanging him off the drive. Dropping the big man back toward the paint meant giving up a free three. Blitzing, if you didn’t time it absolutely perfectly, meant Harden fired a bullet to one of his many shooters stationed around the arc. Merely coming up to the level of the screen meant giving Harden a runway to attack off the dribble. So, switching it was.
The Thunder broke out this strategy early in Game 1 to moderate success, largely because Harden wasn’t aggressive enough. Later on the game, though… well, there’s a reason the clip of Billy Donovan telling Mo Cheeks that he “can’t play [Enes] Kanter” went viral that night. (Yes, that came after a Patrick Beverley pick-and-roll lob to Clint Capela, but it was after Harden had already spun Kanter into the ground several times.)
The one pick-and-roll strategy that did work consistently for OKC in Game 1 was making sure that Andre Roberson stayed on Harden no matter what. No switching, no trapping, just the team’s best defender fighting and staying with his man. Why switch when doing so neutralizes the effect of having Roberson on Harden anyway?
Andre Roberson is Oklahoma City’s best strategy for dealing with James Harden. Photo: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports.
So, Donovan broke out an all-new strategy in Game 2. First, he matched Roberson’s minutes with Harden’s. Every second the bearded guy was on the floor, so, too, was the man with the go-go-gadget arms. Second, Donovan flat-out refused to play Kanter when Harden was on the floor until the fourth quarter, when Steven Adams was in foul trouble, Domantas Sabonis provided little in the way of resistance, the Thunder couldn’t figure out a way to score, and Donovan forgot Taj Gibson was on the team (I’m assuming on that last one). Those lineup tweaks were meant to minimize the possible damage Harden could do in general, but OKC also broke out new pick-and-roll coverages, and they were drastically different from the ones they employed in Game 1.
When Clint Capela or Nene set the screen for Harden, Adams, Gibson, and Jerami Grant dropped back toward the free-throw line to cut off both the drive and the lob. When Ryan Anderson set the screen, Gibson and Grant (for the most part) blitzed Harden to get the ball out of his hands, betting that a cross-court pass would allow them time to get back and contest Anderson’s probable three-point launch from the perimeter. And when Trevor Ariza or Patrick Beverley set the screen, Victor Oladipo, Russell Westbrook, and the rest of the Thunder wings met Harden at the level of the dribble, giving off the momentary appearance of a switch before scurrying back to their own man. In all cases, Roberson worked his way to stay on Harden unless it was absolutely impossible.
These strategies didn’t so much “work” as they merely made things more difficult for Harden and the Rockets, which was enough to keep the Thunder in the game through three quarters until Westbrook, who was simply magical early before self-combusting late, shot them right out of it.
Spurs-Grizzlies: Mike Conley’s monster start
The first quarter of Game 1 did not go well for the Spurs. While you might expect a team with two post-up weapons as its top scoring options to somewhat struggle offensively against the Grizzlies, that actually wasn’t the case. It was the San Antonio defense that wasn’t up to snuff, mostly due to the fact that it just couldn’t stop Mike Conley.
Conley scored ten points on just four shots in that first period, and also dished out four assists. He had the freedom of movement to get wherever he wanted on the floor. That’s generally what happens when you’re guarded by Tony Parker these days; Patty Mills did not provide much resistance, either.
Gregg Popovich decided that he’d seen enough, though, and tapped Danny Green to chase Conley all over the floor for the rest of the game, and for Game 2 as well. The results were much more favorable. Conley followed up his ten-point, four-assist first quarter with just three points on one-of-ten shooting and only three assists the rest of the way. Green’s size (six-foot-six) and length (six-foot-ten wingspan) clearly hampered Conley’s ability to get to his spots, and that, in turn, short-circuited the rest of the Memphis offense. After the Grizz hung a 30-spot in the first quarter, they scored only 52 points through the final three quarters.
Conley was able to find his own offense in Game 2 (24 points, eight assists), but other than Zach Randolph, nobody else made a dent. With Green hounding the point of attack, Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge were free to cover space rather than necessarily patrolling one Grizzly. They bothered Marc Gasol all night and let JaMychal Green, Wayne Selden, Andrew Harrison, and James Ennis fire away to their heart’s content if they really wanted to. Unsurprisingly, that crew did not make Popovich pay for his tactics, and the Spurs took a 2-0 lead.
Warriors-Trail Blazers: Portland’s no-hope defense
Terry Stotts and the Blazers know there’s really no way for them to stop the Warriors. They allowed 116.0 points per 100 possessions to Golden State during last year’s five-game playoff series, and they were a significantly better defensive team last season. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have their virtues, but defense just isn’t one of them. They can score the shit out of the basketball, though, especially when there’s ample space on the floor.
So, Terry Stotts decided to ape the Rockets’ expected Warrior-beating strategy two rounds early and just see what would happen. Portland has gone small for all 96 minutes of the first two games, and hyper-small with Al-Farouq Aminu or Moe Harkless at center for 20 of the 48 minutes of Game 2. They’ve also jacked 64 threes across two games, more than any playoff team but the Celtics.
Terry Stotts does not have the horses. Photo: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports.
Alas, despite a valiant effort from Lillard (34 points) and McCollum (41) in Game 1, and a similarly valiant first half that made it seem like Game 2 might not be a cake walk, eventually the Blazers dropped both contests—the second despite the Warriors playing without Kevin Durant, Shaun Livingston, or Matt Barnes and getting a combined 12-of-35 shooting performance from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
The hyper-small ball worked in the first half, giving Portland some flexibility and switchability defensively while opening up the floor on the other end. But because adjustments have a shelf life of like, eight minutes against this Golden State team, the Blazers got hammered after halftime. JaVale McGee suddenly started giving Aminu and Harkless the Tony Allen Treatment (this is where you just pretend a guy is not on the floor, and it has essentially turned non-shooting defenders like Allen into regular-season-only players at times). All that extra space that had been available in the first half went away, and the Blazers couldn’t figure out how to prevent JaVale from getting easy lobs on the other end, either.
If you can’t score on the Warriors (Portland had a disgusting 76.2 offensive rating in Game 2) and you can’t stop them despite poor games from the Splash Brothers and the all-out absence of the Slim Reaper, well, your series is probably over—even if there are technically two games left.
Cavaliers-Pacers: Nate McMillan is barely coaching
Say this for Stotts: at least he tried something. The same cannot be said for Pacers coach Nate McMillan, who saw his defensive strategy ripped to shreds in Game 1, only to roll out the exact same strategy in Game 2.
Let’s start with the brilliant idea to have the likes of Jeff Teague, Kevin Seraphin, C.J. Miles, and Monta Ellis switch onto LeBron James in pick-and-rolls, whether he’s the ball-handler or the screener. How do you think that worked out for the Pacers?
Be honest, you did not expect to see a video of Teague and Seraphin and Miles and Monta stonewalling LeBron in the post and on the drive. Apparently, that’s what McMillan expected, though, because, again, the man doubled down on the same nonsense in Game 2.
What do you know? These guys can’t guard the best player in the world. Shocker. Seriously, this is some amateur hour bullshit from the Pacers. And that’s before we get to how Teague has been absolutely helpless against Kyrie Irving, they haven’t figured out how to stop Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson has been eating them alive on the boards. If the Cavs defense wasn’t also a dumpster fire, this series would be even more of a blowout than it already is.
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