NBA playoff series are like chess matches. After each game, coaches pore over film to come up with adjustments designed to shut down the opposition. The key to success for elite playoff teams is their ability to remain unpredictable.
NBA offenses were vastly different in the 1990s. Illegal defense rules made it for teams to exploit favorable matchups through isolations or by dumping the ball into the post. Coaches tended to call the same plays over and over again, and there was little defenses could do to stop them.
The NBA made two important rule changes prior to the 1999-2000 season. It prohibited defenders from using their hands or forearms to impede an offensive player’s progress and revised the illegal defense rules, allowing teams to play a zone.
Defenders could now pack the paint, and the prohibition of handchecks made it imperative that they do so. The defensive freedom enabled teams to double-team players in the post more easily and cut off the driving and passing lanes on isolation plays. Coaches began updating their defensive schemes accordingly.
Offenses were forced to evolve in response. The pick-and-roll replaced post-ups and isolations as the primary means for breaking down a defense and creating scoring opportunities.
The need to create new driving and passing angles, as well as the infiltration of analytics into the basketball world placed a premium on spreading the floor via the three-point shot. Those changes led to a league-wide movement towards smaller lineups.
There is still a place for post-ups and isolations in the game. Players such as Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant are highly effective in one-on-one situations, due in large part to their understanding of when and where to pass the ball if the defense converges on them. Yet, too much one-on-one play bogs down the offense.
Teams generally incorporate several scoring methods into their offense, while favoring one style of play over another based on their personnel. Regardless of the type of plays a team runs, if the players become too stagnant and predictable, elite opposition will adjust and eventually shut them down.
The Miami Heat keep defenses off balance by remaining unpredictable in their offensive sets. Unpredictable in this instance does not mean chaotic or random. To the contrary, the Heat run an intricate motion offense involving various misdirection screens and cuts.
The Heat may run a pick-and-roll several times, but they will do it from different angles or spots on the floor. They vary the way the play is initiated, such as from a pin down, off a James post-up or by swinging the ball from the weak side.
The San Antonio Spurs are another team which manages to remain unpredictable while playing within a system. Gregg Popovich's offense includes numerous possible cuts and passes, depending on how the defense responds to the Spurs' attack.
The triangle offense that Phil Jackson used with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers incorporated similar principles. Jackson’s teams also operated within a read-and-react system that was designed to promote player and ball movement.
The Spurs did not always play this way. They won championships in 1999 and 2003 by dumping the ball into Tim Duncan and letting the big man operate on the block.
The rules changed, defenses adjusted and Duncan got old, so Pop adapted. This season, only six percent of their plays were isolations and 7.9 percent on post-ups (both among the lowest in the league) (via Synergy Sports).
San Antonio now usually initiates its offense through Duncan in the high or low post or off of dribble penetration by Tony Parker. But that is just the beginning. When the defense collapses on the two stars, they kick the ball out to an open shooter. The Spurs often swing the ball from side to side during a possession, creating open shots and freeing driving and passing lanes.
The video below provides several examples of Tony Parker creating shots for his teammates off of pick-and-rolls. Misdirection is a key component to the Spurs' attack. Notice how they vary the screener, often using multiple roll men on one play or faking a screen with one big man, then setting the pick on the other side of the floor.
In contrast, the Oklahoma City Thunder, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets have relatively predictable offenses because they run a high percentage of isolation plays (14.2 percent, 15.8 percent and 13.7 percent, respectively) (via Synergy Sports). Brooklyn's offense is also heavily dependent on post-ups (12.5 percent) (via Synergy Sports), which often leads to stagnation.
The Los Angeles Clippers are another playoff team that is too predictable offensively. They are too dependent on Chris Paul to make plays, either in isolation or on pick-and-rolls with Blake Griffin.
OKC, New York, Brooklyn and L.A.’s offenses were all very effective in the regular season. According to Synergy Sports, the Knicks and Nets tied for fourth with .87 points per possession on isolations.
The Thunder ranked second with .89 per possession in isolations (via Synergy Sports) and first in offensive efficiency. According to Synergy Sports, the Clippers finished second with .89 points per possession in isolations, second in ppp (.85) for the ball handler in pick-and-rolls and third in ppp (1.08) for the roll man in pick-and-rolls.
However, these teams will face superior defenses in the playoffs, and the league’s best coaches will figure out how to take away their strengths. The Spurs swept the Clippers last year by trapping Paul and forcing his teammates to make plays.
The Knicks and Nets have favorable first-round matchups, but they will have to diversify their attacks going forward. And while OKC may be talented enough to advance to the Finals on a heavy dose of isolations, they will need to find other ways to score against an athletic Miami Heat team.
The Heat learned in 2011 that NBA defenses are too complex to beat on talent and athleticism alone. Improved spacing and more sophisticated ball and player movement turned them into an unstoppable force. Other elite teams will need to be equally as unpredictable in order to knock them off.