The 2019 NBA playoffs have featured some intriguing tactical matchups. How have teams developed strategically? Have coaches demonstrated thier importance? What have we learned from the playoffs? Read on to find out.
Playoff season is the time of year that teams striving to make a run towards the NBA championship focus, and they become that much more determined to reach the NBA Finals. This article is about the different methods that have allowed teams to make it to the end of the season.
Scorers will score but can they be contained?
Almost every season teams that have made the push to close out the regular season with good runs have had some level of good scoring from their stars or all-star players. This season James Harden, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounpo, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, and Kwahi Leonard have all been amazing - lifting up their teams when needed, and at the right times.
The fact that the game is changing even from a scorer’s perspective is evident. Take a look at the points per game for the regular season here, and it becomes amazing to see that the top ten scorers across the league all averaged +35 minutes (with the exception of Kemba Walker) and above +25 points per game.
Just 10 seasons ago such scoring punches would have been unheard of. So what changed? Mentality in getting buckets? Team rotations that effectively seek strategies to defend first and score from behind the arch? The rules across the league that allow for offensive players to be less contacted by defenses?
The answer is that it’s a combination of factors, but overall one consistent point is that players have figured out a way to get to the bucket. Curry and KD have been pulling up more from behind the arch, and Giannis is getting into the basket with force. Which such elite talent, offensive strategies have worked.
Strategies to stop offences
For the first time in a long time, we have begun to see team strategies attempting to deter scorers from getting to their so-called “sweet spots”.
During the 2019 NBA playoff series between Utah and Houston, we saw Snyder and the Jazz attempt to guard Harden from the back in an effort to stop his infamous “step back” 3-point shot. While the Jazz still got eliminated, it in part proved to be an effective method to cause prolific scorer James Harden to miss his regular shot.
We also saw the “blow-for-blow” exchange of defenses in the series between Detroit and Milwaukee.
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The game changer here occurred when Blake Griffin got sidelined by an aggravated knee injury after a dunk, leaving Drummond and Antetokounpo to try and take each other down.
While eventually The Bucks dominated the series and eliminated The Pistons, what was interesting to see happen in this series was the offensive and defensive rebounding effort, as deflections were being forced by the defences on both ends.
It was the first time a team had attempted to stop Antetokounpo in this way. With today’s positionless basketball, involving so many transition plays and varying playing strategies lends itself to visually appealing basketball, and has become a major part of creating storylines in the NBA style of play.
The Emergence of a powerhouse in the North
At the beginning of the regular season I had a distinct feeling that the Toronto Raptors would have issues, yet halfway through the season GM Masai Ujiri, pulled a proverbial rabbit out of the hat when trading Valenciunas away, and in return got a healthy Marc Gasol.
The Spaniard was propelled into the starting lineup that took the Raptors to a strong regular season ending, making a bigger bang in the 2019 playoffs.
While the addition of Gasol to the Raptors was a genius move in itself, another point to take note of was the emergence of Kwahi and Pascal Siakam, and their comparison of the early Jordan & Pippen combo of the pre-championship Bulls.
Here is another partial hint at “history repeating itself”: The fact that superteams have been dominating the league for a while now has been clear, but slowly and steadily there are things that will be set back into play, such as duo combinations that will be much more effective.
Playoff tactical changes
Coaching has played a key part in this year’s playoffs with in-series adjustments having a clear impact.
Despite their all-star lineup, Golden State’s Steve Kerr showed his value during their run to the finals. This was clear when he replaced Andrew Bogut with Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup to start the Western Conference semifinal against Houston.
Iguodala’s introduction (regular season minutes up from 23.2 to 34.5mins and points 5.7 to 13.5pts) allowed for the warriors to space the floor with shooters and playmakers, prioritizing pace and space rather than size.
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In doing so this made Clint Capella, Houston’s Centre and defensive anchor, a non-factor. His regular season vs. series averages dropped in all major statistical categories. When Iguodala was on the floor GSW outscored the rockets by 15.2 points per 100 possessions, which was crucial. The warriors only outscored the rockets by a total of 11 points on the way to winning the series 4-2.
Another coaching impact on a series was evident when Nick Nurse decided to shift Kawhi Leonard onto Giannis Antetokounmpo as his primary defender in Game three.
This was an attempt to slow down The Bucks and it resulted in Giannis’ points per game and plus/minus declining (G1&2: 2W, 27ppg, +12.5 vs. G3-6: 4L, 20.5ppg, -3.8 when on court). The Raptors were able to win the next four games to take the Eastern Conference.
The playoffs tend to be a culmination of how teams seek to beat one another by trying to find tactical advantages to outwit, outlast, and outcompete them. This year’s have been no different.
We can look forward to that continuing as the Raptors take on the Golden State Warriors in the 2019 NBA finals.