Breaking Down the Signature Moves of NBA Playoffs' Top Stars
The 2021 NBA playoffs have been a feast for fans of stars, with nearly all of the league’s top players reaching the postseason.
Witnessing how each superstar attacks their opponents is both captivating and unique, with players from LeBron James to Nikola Jokic to Damian Lillard all demonstrating very different forms of predatory behavior.
Here’s how the playoffs top stars are using their skill sets to dismantle defenders, using signature moves that are nearly impossible to stop.
Damian Lillard's Long-Range Threes
Inspired by his dreadful 2018 playoff showing in a sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans, Lillard's range has only increased over the past few years.
No one in the NBA takes and makes as many deep threes as Lillard.
While an NBA three-point line outside of the corners is just 23 feet and nine inches, Lillard regularly pulls up from 30 feet or more.
Since 2018-19, Lillard has made 126 total threes from 30 feet or longer in the regular and postseasons. Trae Young (93) and Stephen Curry (70) are the only other players that come remotely close to matching his volume from this distance, with a fourth-place Davis Bertans making just 25 over those same three years.
Lillard also shoots these long-range missiles at a surprisingly high accuracy. A 36.3 percent mark from 30 feet or longer is better than both Young (36.2 percent) and Curry (33.7 percent), and of the three, Lillard has the lowest number of shots that come off an assist (32.5 percent). These makes often come as Lillard is simply bringing the ball up the court and feels confident enough to pull up on a shocked defender who is still hanging out near the three-point line.
The key for Lillard is not changing much in his form.
The 6'2", 195-pound guard is strong enough to hoist from the logo while making it look as effortless as a typical mid-range jumper.
While his most famous example may be the shot that sent the Oklahoma City Thunder home in the first round of the 2019 playoffs, Lillard is closing in on a 30-foot plus made three nearly every other game.
Nikola Jokic's Sombor Shuffle
Jokic's passing should rightfully garner a lot of attention, although his own offense has been built around a unique and unguardable shot.
An injury to his left ankle in 2017 forced Jokic to start taking one-legged shots during practice to minimize the pain. The result? The "Sombor Shuffle," a high-releasing off-balance jumper that Jokic unleashes off his right leg.
Given the name because of his hometown of Sombor, Serbia, Jokic's shot is part step-back, part fadeaway and 100 percent a pain for opponents to defend.
While the NBA's second spectrum tracking data doesn't have a specific designation for this shot, Jokic is shooting 51.7 percent on fadeaway jump shots this season. That's a terrific number for any guard or wing in the league, much less a 284-pound center.
The move typically begins with Jokic facing up his defender. He'll take a right-handed dribble while stepping forward with his left foot, giving his opponent the thought that he may try to drive.
Jokic then shifts his weight to the right leg while bringing the ball up high above his head, releasing the shot well above his 6'11" frame as he fades away. The ball takes an especially high arc to the hoop, a nearly unblockable shot.
James Harden's Step-Back Jumpers
Perhaps no signature move in the NBA today is as famous as Harden's step-back jumper.
The kill shot to an offensive repertoire that led the league in scoring back-to-back-to-back years from 2018-2020, Harden's step-back is an incredibly difficult shot that he's made look easy.
Harden took 208 total step-back jumpers in 2020-21, almost twice as many as his next shot type (119 driving layups). Nearly all (199) were from outside the three-point arc, where he shot 38.7 percent. That means Harden made a higher percentage of his step-backs than Jayson Tatum (38.6 percent), Donovan Mitchell (38.6 percent) and Brandon Ingram (38.1 percent) did of their entire three-point attempts.
The 2018 MVP doesn't need anyone to set up this play, either.
A whopping 91.4 percent of his step-backs came without an assist this season. Of the 208 total shot attempts, just a single one was blocked.
Harden isolates more than any other player in the NBA (8.0 possessions per game), and has become incredibly efficient offensively thanks in part to this shot (87.5 percentile).
The shot requires a ton of strength and balance, areas Harden has perfected over the years.
Luka Doncic's Creativity
It's unfair to define Doncic to just a single move.
As a 6'7" point guard he can pull up from nearly anywhere to get a shot off. Trying to wrap him up in a foul only ends in a one-armed heave at the hoop that catches nothing but net. Then there's the one-legged game-winner against the Memphis Grizzlies, where he launches the shot from beyond the three-point arc, only to land at the free-throw line while watching the ball drift gently into the basket.
Quite simply, Luka Magic.
The step-back jumper makes up for a huge portion of his offense (24.1 percent of all shots taken), yet he's not quite on James Harden's level yet (35.7 percent shooting on step-back threes compared to Harden's 38.7 percent).
Doncic can surprise with the occasional dunk, or hit a tornado-like layup with arms bending and flailing in all directions, both leaving defenders shaking their heads in disbelief.
At 22, Doncic is perhaps the league's greatest improv artist when it comes to offensive creativity. Despite his lack of bust, defenders can never get too comfortable no matter where he is on the court given just how many different moves Doncic can unleash at any given time.
Of course, his passing is nearly as dangerous as well.
In addition to his 27.7 points per game this season (sixth-highest in NBA), Doncic's 8.6 assists generated 22.1 points for the Dallas Mavericks. That's 49.8 points per night Doncic was responsible for, in perhaps the most entertaining fashion among today's stars.
Giannis Antetokounmpo's Unassisted Dunks
At 6'11" with 242 pounds of muscle, Antetokounmpo has become an unstoppable force around the rim.
Of the 324 players attempting at least 50 shots or more in the restricted area this season, Antetokounmpo ranks first with a field goal percentage of 80.7 percent. That's not even a number LeBron James, Zion Williamson or Kevin Durant were able to touch.
While Antetokounmpo finished second in total dunks this season to Rudy Gobert (231 to 177), 70 of Antetokounmpo's dunks came without an assist compared to just 40 for Gobert.
The key to the two-time MVP being able to get to the basket without any help is a combination of his ability to take defenders off the dribble, mixed with an incredibly long stride and a 9'2" standing reach.
Antetokounmpo only needs a sliver of space to make these dunks possible, helped out by a roster full of three-point shooters who keep the floor spread.
While most players would have to settle for a floater or simply lay-up after getting into the paint, Antetokounmpo is perhaps the only player in the league with the combination of size and strength to be able to go over and around opponents for some soul-crushing slams.
Kevin Durant's Mid-Range Jumpers
Durant is proving that analytics simply don't matter when you're 6'10" with a 7'5" wingspan and a silky smooth shooting touch.
While the modern NBA is drifting behind the three-point line or pushing for shots at the rim, Durant has been perfectly content with keeping the mid-range jumper alive.
Even after coming off a major Achilles injury, Durant led the NBA in jump shot field goal percentage (49.7 percent) this season, easily besting a second-place Chris Paul (48.6 percent). It's simply unfair when Durant either catches the ball or creates on his own inside the arc, as he can pull-up immediately with his size or use a few well-placed dribbles to lose an opponent, leading to an open look.
Now 32, Durant has only improved with age.
He shot 47.3 percent on shots from 3-10 feet this season (career average 44.6 percent), 53.6 percent from 10-16 feet (career average 46.0 percent) and 48.7 percent from 16 feet to the three-point line (career average 44.1 percent).
While Durant has also been excellent at the rim (83.3 percent within three feet) and from outside the arc (45.0 percent), his bread-and-butter has always been somewhere in between.
Joel Embiid's Post-Ups
No player in the NBA posts up more than Embiid, a dying art being kept alive by arguably the league's best two-way big man.
Embiid averaged 9.3 post-up possessions per game this season, with Nikola Vucevic and Nikola Jokic tying for second place with just 5.8. This accounted for 36.5 percent of Embiid's total offense during a season where he averaged a career-high 28.5 points per game.
The 27-year-old is more Hakeem Olajuwon than Shaquille O'Neal, using his footwork and variety of post moves to torture opponents rather than just overpowering them with size (which he can do as well).
Embiid recorded just 41 total dunks this season, making up for only five percent of his scoring. By comparison, he made 94 hook shots and fadeaways.
He can spin, go up and under, pump fake and use the glass, often times all in the same game.
Embiid is the best post player in the NBA today, as evidenced by his 1.41 points per possession mark (100th percentile) so far in these playoffs.
LeBron James' IQ
Despite arguably being the greatest basketball player of all time, does James actually have a signature move?
He's accumulated the third-most points in NBA history despite never being defined as a scorer. James' passing may be his most impressive trait despite playing small forward nearly his entire career, and his single most famous play may be a blocked shot.
There's that play where he stares at the ball momentarily before pulling up for a jumper, a move that is actually effective despite fooling no one. Still, that's just a small part of James' overall offensive game.
What truly makes James special, in addition to all of the aforementioned, is his mind.
Perhaps the most cerebral player in the NBA, James has also showcased his amazing memory on more than one occasion. He's also been known to call out opponent's plays based on previous film study, even telling guys on the other team where to be. As former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin told The Ringer's Bill Simmons:
"I was in the gym when I watched him, on the floor against Toronto, tell Patrick Patterson where he was supposed to go on the play they had called out of a timeout late in the fourth quarter. He was like 'No Pat, you're supposed to stand over there and set a pin down for DeMar [DeRozan] over here.'"
While his physical gifts are extraordinary, perhaps James' best weapon is his brain.