There's something weird that Draymond Green does, something that cuts against natural basketball instinct and temptation. It happens when he's standing around the three-point arc, wide-open. This happens often and by design—by the defense's design, that is. Opponents want Green to be open. They want him to shoot the ball. But he doesn't shoot. Instead, he passes to somebody else, a superior teammate, and that's when his work begins. He hops around the court in a distinctly eager way, looking for contact. He slams into defenders, he yells out mismatches, he crashes the glass. He wreaks general havoc. The Golden State Warriors are one of the greatest offensive teams ever, and much of their offense comes from this grizzly sort of peripheral effort by Green, the odd NBA player who's better without the ball than with it.
"I don't need to score to completely annihilate a defense," he once said. "Shots are gonna fall when they fall, but I have completely destroyed defenses not shooting the ball."
Still, over the years, defenses have deployed soft coverage against Green, leaving him open on the perimeter. It's an unusual treatment for a star player, but he's not alone, even in high-stakes games. Of the four second-round playoff series, three of them feature a star whom defenses often sag against: Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, Ben Simmons in Philadelphia and Green in Golden State.
Each player has a distinct skill set: Giannis is an unprecedented sort of whirling menace; Simmons is a cool, powerful shot-creator; Green is a basketball genius who turns slight advantages into backbreaking ones. The common thread is their poor long-range shooting. Giannis made just 25.6 percent of his shots from three this year, and he was no better when left wide-open (by six or more feet). Simmons made waves this year by simply attempting a three. (He took just six threes on the season and missed all six.) Green, as they say, shoots like he's wearing a backpack and converted a grisly 27.7 percent of wide-open threes this season.
A soft defense would seem to be the perfect scheme to deploy against them in this age of deep analytics and detailed shooting zones. That's why, early in the playoffs, all three players faced slacked defenses. But all three picked them apart, emboldened by the inherent disrespect of sagging and excited by all the open space. There are better ways to attack soft defenses than by simply shooting over them, after all, and all three players proved that time and again with creative screens, Eurosteps and more. Now, as the playoffs wear on, opponents are tightening up.
In the first round, the Detroit Pistons played a soft coverage against Giannis and were easily swept. Their scheme had little effect on the Greek Freak, who scored around the rim at his typical absurd rate. The scenario below—in which Blake Griffin tries to pick up Giannis from inches outside the restricted area—was just one lowlight:
On this play, Giannis blows by Griffin with a Eurostep. He'd finish with 41 points—a playoff career high.
"I don't know what the Pistons were doing," says Boston Celtics forward Marcus Morris, one of a few Boston defensive stoppers who tried to contain Giannis in the second round.
Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets tried something similar against Simmons, dropping his defender into the paint, where he'd wait for Simmons to make a move. It didn't go great. In the play below, Jared Dudley sags way off Simmons, who gathers a head of steam, charges toward the rim and finishes.
Simmons was excellent all series, and his strong play felt personal. Perhaps he drew motivation from Sixers' fans booing at home in Game 1. Or perhaps it was Dudley, who poked the bear both off the floor—where he called Simmons an "average" half-court player—and on the floor, where he dared Simmons to prove him wrong. Simmons did just that.
On half-court possessions, some 80 percent of his shot attempts came around the rim versus Brooklyn (up from about 60 percent in the regular season), per Synergy. He scored a sterling 1.4 points per possession there.
And attacking the basket is just one way to crush a soft defense. Here's another:
Here, Simmons' defender is slacking again. That leaves him and teammate Tobias Harris with a two-on-one advantage. Simmons reads it. He slams Harris' man with a screen and drops a bounce pass at the three-point arc. Harris' defender can't get around the screen, and Simmons' man is still too deep in his coverage to challenge. Harris is left wide-open for three.
It's a motion right out of Green's playbook. In fact, the Warriors have run this so often through him that they're now operating a step ahead:
Houston played Green softly early in this series. On the play above—during Game 2—he's left alone up top as PJ Tucker helps on Steph Curry. Green ignores a wide-open look; together, Green and Klay Thompson have a two-on-one edge on the left wing. Green flips the ball to Thompson and then whacks Thompson's defender, Clint Capela—typically a prelude to a Thompson triple, much as the Sixers executed above. The Houston Rockets rush to contest the impending shot. The Warriors outsmart them; Green slips his screen on Capela, and Thompson finds him on the roll. Late in the shot clock, the Warriors find a wide-open dunk.
But Green, as he says, doesn't even need the ball to roast defenses. He is fifth in the NBA in touches per game this postseason, yet his average time per touch is less than two seconds, the lowest of any high- or even mid-volume guy. On average, he dribbles the ball 0.96 times per touch—astounding considering how often he brings the ball up for Golden State, as in the play above, dribbling five or six times. He's a ruthless back-screener, especially when left alone, when there is no second defender to switch responsibilities.
That's why, as the series has progressed, the Rockets have played him more closely.
On the above play, in the fourth quarter of Game 4, Austin Rivers picks up Green on the other side of half court. Green tries to drive anyway and dribbles the ball off his foot.
Later, the Rockets keep a watchful eye on Green away from the ball—a serious schematic change:
Kevin Durant has the rock at the top of the key, where the Rockets doubled at times earlier in the series. Instead of leaving to double, Green's defender (Eric Gordon) sticks tightly on him. Green tries to screen Curry open. Gordon and Rivers perfectly coordinate an off-ball switch, which keeps Green and Curry out of the play. In the end, Golden State settles for a contested mid-range jumper. Durant makes it. That'll happen. It's still a good outcome for Houston.
The Rockets have strung good outcomes together for a few games, and they're back in the series. By focusing on Green more often, the Rockets have limited his back-cut damage, a task that will grow much easier if Durant is forced to miss time with his calf injury. In the regular season, Curry was wide-open on 21 percent of his three-point attempts; the Rockets have cut that to around 13 percent the past three games. In Games 3 and 4, the Splash Brothers shot a combined 9-of-35 (26 percent) from deep. In Game 5, they hit 38 percent (8-of-21)—better, but still below their season averages.
Pressing up has worked nicely for Houston. Naturally, other teams have made a similar adjustment this round.
Against the Toronto Raptors, Simmons' averages are down to 9.4 points and 4.6 assists per game. The main culprit: Kawhi Leonard, who in addition to just generally being Kawhi Leonard is causing problems by tightly guarding Simmons, as in the play below (a turnover).
Simmons' usage rate has dropped to just 13.5 this series—lower than bit players James Ennis and Mike Scott. (In the regular season, Simmons used a healthy 21.4 percent of the Sixers' possessions.) Simmons cratered in Philadelphia's ugly Game 5 loss, attempting five shots and notching four assists with five turnovers. Playing up on him has sapped his trademark creativity. The Sixers are trying to lean on Harris and Jimmy Butler instead (they're each receiving about 15 more touches per game than they did in the regular season), but it hasn't worked out: Philly has been held under 100 points in four of five games so far. That's all the feedback Toronto should need.
The Celtics, on the other hand, never found their perfect solution. All series, they played up on Giannis. In Game 1, it worked wonders. He was thwarted and even overwhelmed. He shot 7-of-21 from the floor with just two assists. The Milwaukee Bucks scored 90 points, their fewest since late December.
"I'm giving him a tad bit of space, and then I guard him like anybody else," Morris said. Boston aimed to keep Giannis out of the paint. He attempted 10.7 shots in the restricted area during the regular season, tops in the league, and converted 73.7 percent of them. "I'm not trying to make him too comfortable where he can run at you," Morris continued. "I think that's his biggest thing—when he can get that full head of steam. I'm trying to take that away from him."
Unfortunately for Boston, Giannis took over the series, thanks in part to a newfound shooting stroke. Boston gave him some room to step into threes—though not the full Simmons red carpet—and Giannis took them in stride. He hit multiple threes in three of five games against Boston. "That's something that I can't take for granted, so I do have to be up on him more than I would in the past," Horford said before Game 3. Amid the extra stress, Boston's defense crumbled.
Game 5 Wednesday night was noncompetitive. Giannis scored 39 in Game 4. In Game 3, he attacked the rim mercilessly, attempting 22 free throws.
"Guy comes down almost six times in a row, gets free throws," Kyrie Irving said afterward, referencing one particularly dominant stretch by the Greek Freak. "What are you really going to do?"
Good question. Playing back brought ugly results for Detroit; playing up failed for Boston in the end. "They're trying to pick the best way to defend him," Brook Lopez said last week, "which I don't know if there is a best way to defend Giannis."
It's possible Giannis has transcended into some truly unguardable realm. But for the series that are still up for grabs, the tape shows great hope. Toronto can close out the Sixers on Thursday by keeping the clamps on Simmons. The Rockets can even their score Friday by keeping close tabs on Green. It seems as though, one round after the Utah Jazz brought defense-from-behind into the mainstream, there is a new coolest way to stop a player: actually guarding him.