The NBA Playoffs begin on Saturday, and there are so many reasons to get excited. Thursday, my colleague Tom Ziller ranked all 241 players on the 16 team rosters in terms of intrigue. In this piece, I'll list 36 cool things these 16 playoff teams do that perhaps you might not notice right off the bat.
Consider these your 2016 NBA Playoffs easter eggs.
1. The wedge pick and roll
This is a simple pick and roll that virtually every playoff team uses. As the point guard dribbles the ball down one side of the court, another perimeter player comes up from the baseline to set a cross-screen for the power forward beyond the three-point line. Rather than continuing on towards the hoop, though, the power forward veers to the side to screen for the point guard. The goal is to get the point guard attacking in the middle of the floor, and it works extremely well. Here's an example of the Hornets running it to perfection:
Most defenses like to force side pick and rolls to the baseline because it limits the ball-handler's options, but the small act of screening for the screener jumbles their coverages. That allows the ball-handler to get to the middle of the floor, presenting him with more ways to slice up the defense.
Just adding that short preamble to the side pick and roll makes all the difference.
2. The Warriors' way cooler wedge pick and roll
Surprise! The Warriors do this better than everyone else. They've added an old-school weave to tilt the defense further before screening Draymond Green to go run a pick and roll with Stephen Curry. This is what got Kevin Love back in January. It also nails many other opponents.
3. Clippers double hi
This is the NBA's best non-Warriors pick and roll play. As Chris Paul crosses half court, DeAndre Jordan and whoever's playing power forward link together for a jumbo screen. Paul chooses a side, Jordan rolls to the basket and the power forward pops to the perimeter.
It's nearly impossible for the three defenders directly involved in the play to coordinate the right coverage. Dropping back ensures a 3-on-2 situation because Paul's defender can't fight through two screens. Hedging risks leaving a shooter open or Jordan rumbling unimpeded down the lane. Switching allows Paul or Blake Griffin (when healthy) to go to work against a mismatched defender. The remaining two defenders also can't do much because they're covering shooters in the corners.
Expect Doc Rivers to call this play whenever the Clippers are in a tight spot.
4. Oklahoma City's very high ball screens
A few teams use this tactic to get their stars attacking downhill, but none do it more than the Thunder. Oklahoma City knows that it's impossible to stop Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant when they have a full head of steam. That's why they'll occasionally bring a big man all the way out to near halfcourt to set a screen for them.
The defense isn't going to trap Durant or Westbrook that far from the hoop, so they'll yield space in some way, whether it's by going under the screen or having the big man drop below the three-point line. Either way, though, that's a lot of space for Westbrook and Durant to attack. Plus, Durant isn't exactly afraid to pull up from a long way away.
5. The Blazers go around the world ... as a decoy
The beauty of Terry Stotts' Flow offense is that it can be adopted for players with two very different styles. Last year, the Blazers used looping off-ball player movement that often resembled race cars circling a track to set up post entry passes to LaMarcus Aldridge. This year, it's misdirection to tilt the defense before Damian Lillard pick and rolls. Notice how Bismack Biyombo is too distracted by Allen Crabbe's cut to creep up on Lillard.
Lillard is tough enough to stop when defenses have time to prepare their coverages. He can shoot off the dribble, finish over trees at the rim or draw two defenders and find the open man. Imagine trying to stop him from doing one of those three things when the defense is already stretched from Portland's decoy movement.
6. The unstoppable Matthew Dellavedova-Tristan Thompson pick and roll
There is no reason a Matthew Dellavedova/Tristan Thompson pick and roll should work. Delly has no offensive skills that should scare defenders when he's not spotting up along the three-point line, while Thompson can't do much more than catch and finish right around the hoop. And yet, the most sophisticated defenses in the NBA routinely get their pants pulled down by this pick and roll duo.
For whatever reason, Dellavedova makes the big man defender think he actually wants to shoot a floater. When that happens, Thompson, whose screen always manages to clear out Dellavedova's man, rumbles down the lane for the alley-oop.
7. Atlanta's Crushed ICE defense
Like most teams, the Hawks try to force ball-handlers away from the middle on side pick and rolls. This is commonly known as ICE defense, though teams have their own terminology for this defensive call.
Unlike most teams, the Hawks spring a deadly trap on the unsuspecting ball-handler. Normally, the screener's man stays in the paint to contain the ball-handler. Atlanta, however, has two of the league's quickest big men in Al Horford and Paul Millsap. They can jump out on the ball-handler, pin him against the sideline and let the other three players lurk in passing lanes.
That's how the Hawks force so many turnovers.
8. Stuck on the Kawhisland
Every so often, teams will try to score in an isolation against Kawhi Leonard. It's always a huge mistake.
But a player doesn't need to have the ball to get trapped on the Kawhisland. When Leonard is at his best, he doesn't even let his man catch the ball. He neutralizes opponents' cute baseline screening actions all by himself because he slides his feet faster than his man can run. Combine that foot speed with his long arms, and he singlehandedly spices up the notoriously-conservative Spurs defense.
Pray for Andrew Wiggins pic.twitter.com/6ZJS8rigyy— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) December 29, 2015
9. Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley are super annoying
The Celtics have successfully inverted the traditional defensive strategy. Most teams use an intimidating presence in the paint to cover up weaknesses on the perimeter. By contrast, the Celtics use multiple intimidating presences on the perimeter to cover up weaknesses in the paint. It can be mesmerizing to watch, unless you're on the other team.
In particular, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley stick to their men like glue. They don't let ball-handlers turn the corner and are nearly impossible to screen off the ball. They're so tough that screeners often commit offensive fouls in last-ditch efforts to adjust their positioning.
Boston's interior defenders are fine, but they aren't great rim protectors. Yet because of Smart, Bradley, Evan Turner and the multi-dimensional Jae Crowder, opponents don't get to the rim enough to take advantage of Boston's soft underbelly in the middle.
10. Hassan Whiteside shouts 'BOO'
Hassan Whiteside certainly isn't the most versatile defensive player in the world. He had a tendency to chase defensive stats over maintaining proper positioning earlier in the year, and he's still reluctant to step out on the perimeter when necessary.
But on some level, can you blame him? When he waives his arms around the basket, brave NBA players essentially hide in the fetal position. For all the shots he blocks, he alters countless others, either by forcing wild misses or stopping attempts altogether.
Without Chris Bosh, the Heat are relying more on Whiteside's paint presence to stay afloat defensively. Their perimeter defenders can play their men tighter knowing that funnels them into Whiteside's jaws. More minutes with rookie perimeter stoppers Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson has helped; both are quick and wise enough to shade their men into Miami's trap.
There may be a matchup that forces Whiteside out of the paint. If he can stay there, though, opponents are in trouble.
11. The Warriors, switching away your plans
The best way to generate open shots is through some combination of screening, player movement and side-to-side ball rotation. Those sequences create a small opening somewhere that eventually leads to a chain reaction that can yield bigger openings later on. We commonly know that as "good offense."
But what's the point when the Warriors can just switch everything? Watch this sequence against the Spurs.
Nobody moves the ball better than the Spurs, yet it was all meaningless there. Golden State simply closed every possible small opening by switching those off-ball screens. The result: no miscommunication and no momentary flash of light that could be leveraged elsewhere. If none of that preliminary movement gets anyone meaningfully open, what's an offense to do?
12. Myles Turner is lost and it doesn't matter
Like most 19-year-old big men, Myles Turner is often out of position, sometimes in comical ways. Unlike most 19-year-old big men, he can recover just in the nick of time.
13. Clint Capela is lost and it doesn't matter
Capela is Houston's version of Turner. He's juked out of position often on defense and sometimes looks like he's running the wrong play on offense, but there are glimpses of special talent in there.
It's amazing how someone this big is so light on his feet. Capela is the only Rockets big man who's capable of trapping and disrupting a pick and roll, no matter how chaotic the backside coverage is.
Better yet, he can slide with even the quickest guards when he's forced to switch.
Capela is also a beast on the offensive glass and has shown flashes of next-level passing reads. He's far from a finished product, but those breathtaking flashes are enough to keep Rockets fans sane during a baffling season. They're also enough to signal the impending end of the Dwight Howard era.
14. The Threat Of Dirk
Why is yet another Mavericks roster of misfit toys over .500 and safely in the postseason? The threat of Dirk Nowitzki still scares the shit out of teams.
Watch Matt Barnes on this late-season play.
He simply refuses to leave Nowitzki, even if it means letting J.J. Barea waddle in for an uncontested layup. You can't really blame Barnes for this, because he's merely executing Memphis' scheme. The Grizzlies are asking third and fourth defenders to help on Barea because the second defender's only job is to stop Dirk Nowitzki from getting open.
It's amazing how well Rick Carlisle leverages this threat. When Dallas runs a high pick and roll, they have Nowitzki come directly underneath the point guard's man and pick a side based on the defensive alignment. Most teams believe the best way to negate a pick-and-pop threat is to have that player's man jump out to prevent the guard from turning the corner, because that throws off the play's timing when done well. But that doesn't work against Nowitzki because he'll simply shift to screen on the other side. Suddenly, two defenders are out of the play and the Mavericks' guard has a clear lane to the basket.
No wonder Dallas has become an outpost for wayward small guards.
15. Andre Drummond's vertical spacing
Three years ago, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra used the term "vertical spacing" to describe midseason free agent Chris Andersen's essential role on an eventual championship team. That was a fancy way of saying that teams were worried about Andersen dunking on unsuspecting fools, which opened driving lanes for other players.
Detroit takes this concept to its logical extreme. The Pistons' entire offense is built around Andre Drummond's ability to leap into the sky and cram alley-oops. A weird thing happens when Reggie Jackson gets into the paint: teams run away from him to blanket Drummond. Look at the Cavaliers here.
Three Cavaliers form a force field around Drummond. Meanwhile, here's how the play ends.
Drummond doesn't always roll hard to the basket and can get discouraged when teams take him away. His coaches should constantly pump up his confidence by reminding him of this shadow impact.
16. Kyle Lowry, sneaking away
Kyle Lowry succeeds because he's a superlative shooter, aggressive driver and tough-as-nails performer in clutch situations. But he also thrives thanks to a good deal of trickery, slipping into an opening just when defenders relax. It's as if he's tapping his defender on the shoulder and running away when they turn their heads.
The Lowry specialty is an above-the-break three-pointer taken because he's tip-toed just a few feet away from his distracted defender.
Players are taught to cut backdoor when their man turns his head, but Lowry's path is much more specific depending on the play. He simply has a knack for drifting into the easiest passing lane for his teammate. Wherever there's a small crack of daylight, Lowry finds it.
17. Tony Allen ISOs. Yes, that Tony Allen
The Grizzlies' barrage of injuries forced them to dig even deeper to uncover ways to score. One such tactic: give the ball to a man with a reputation for being one of the worst offensive players in the league and clear out. It works!
Allen isn't as useless offensively as his reputation suggests. While Allen can't shoot a lick from the perimeter, he does have a powerful swing-through move that allows him to get his shoulders by his defender and into the middle of the lane, where he can toss in odd floaters and runners. Giving him the ball in the mid-post area allows him to use those strengths without having to worry too much about his weaknesses.
Nobody would ever make the Tony Allen Mid-Post Isolation a staple of their offense, but it's good for a bucket or two a game. That's valuable for a Grizzlies team without many other options.
18. Kemba Walker doing the splits
Splitting pick and roll traps has been a Kemba Walker trademark since his days at UConn, but Charlotte's improved spacing has created more opportunities to show it off. Having a three-point shooter playing power forward means it's more difficult for opponents to drop their big man in the paint on Walker ball screens, so they're stuck hedging out to throw off Charlotte's timing. When that happens, there's a gap that Walker can easily exploit. Charlotte gets into actions so quickly that these defenders are already lunging out of position anyway.
Once Walker splits the trap, there may as well be an open highway leading to the basket. This is what Steve Clifford means when he told me that Walker has benefited from better spacing.
19. C.J. McCollum throws up junk
What is this shit? Just when defenses think they have McCollum corralled, he slips away and tosses in shots others won't even attempt.
The shooting creativity is important, but two other factors matter more: footwork and handle. McCollum creates space by jabbing his feet into defenders' bodies, wedging toes in their space to then create separation with his entire body. He then takes advantage of that space by keeping his dribble alive until the opportune moment to make a decision. That allows him to weave through tight quarters to set up shots for himself or teammates.
20. Russell Westbrook backing guards down
Last year, Russell Westbrook started using this weapon because the Thunder didn't have many other ways to score. With Kevin Durant returning, surely Westbrook would have to put this tool back in the shed to make room for his superstar teammate.
Not so much. Instead, Westbrook has posted up more, physically overwhelming smaller guards and showing off his superlative passing skills to find his big men for dunks. Rather than always barging through multiple defenders, Westbrook now backs in on one side of the court and waits for everyone else to dictate his next move. He knows he can get his shot off anytime he wants, so he probes and probes until a bigger player moves to cut him off. At that point, he's developed great chemistry with Steven Adams in particular to find him cutting at the ideal time.
As the rest of the NBA moves away from the post-up, Westbrook is embracing it as a means of staying under control.
21. Ian Mahinmi's surprising passing wizardry
The Pacers ultimately gave up on Roy Hibbert because they wanted a more mobile, skilled and dynamic center as part of their small-ball transition. Who knew that man was actually Hibbert's longtime backup, Ian Mahinmi? Not only is he more fluid defensively, but he's grown overnight into a pinpoint passer on pick and rolls. His assist rate has more than doubled and he's even making next-level decisions like this one.
Mahinmi waited for the ball at the free-throw line, looked at Monta Ellis in the corner to freeze help man Kent Bazemore and threw the pass ahead of Myles Turner so only he could catch it. As odd as it sounds, Mahinmi's passing creativity has juiced up Indiana's stodgy offense just a little bit.
22. Bismack Biymobo's violent offensive rebounds
There are lots of good offensive rebounders in the NBA, but none grab boards as violently as Biyombo. He looks like an airline passenger trying to pull a heavy suitcase down from an overhead bin.
Though Biyombo is a limited offensive player, his screen-setting and, ahem, aggressive offensive rebounding at least gives him some utility there to go along with his excellent defense.
23. Dragging it out on the fast break
If you see a point guard slowing down during a transition opportunity, chances are he's waiting for his big man to set a drag screen. The point guard will wait for the big man to slide into position and essentially loop behind them in an attempt to wiggle free. Some teams, like the Blazers, use this sequence to allow Damian Lillard to play hide-and-seek for a three.
Others, like the Pistons, will use this sequence to get Andre Drummond rolling downhill before the defense gets set.
Either way, the drag screen has become a common way to create a transition opportunity out of nothing.
24. Surrendering a wide-open layup so Stephen Curry doesn't shoot a 3
It always amuses me when teams are willing to give up a free fast-break layup just to prevent Stephen Curry from getting an open three.
Of course, the math agrees with this strategy.
25. Kyle Korver slicing to the top of the key
Whenever the Hawks grab a defensive rebound, turn your eyes away from the ball and find Kyle Korver. If he's on one of the wings, watch for a Hawks big man to slide over to his side and set a screen for him to curl to the middle of the floor. Korver's man is often too focused on his transition defense responsibilities to notice this movement quickly enough. The end result: a rhythm three-pointer and announcers wondering how the hell the opponent let one of the league's best shooters get open.
26. J.J. Redick slicing to the top of the key
The Clippers do something similar to get fellow sharpshooter J.J. Redick open, with two key differences. One is that they do it in half-court situations by having DeAndre Jordan set a ball screen for Chris Paul before he quickly veers to his left to free Redick. The other is that Jordan stops well in front of Redick and spreads very wide, allowing J.J. plenty of space to run his own defender into the screen.
This illustrates one of Doc Rivers' biggest strengths as a coach. He is extremely precise in drilling proper spacing, timing and angles. This play fails if any of those concepts are even slightly off. Luckily for Clipper fans, their coach and the two players involved have developed their precision over a number of years.
27. You won't stop the Isaiah Thomas whirling dervish this time
There's a sense that while Isaiah Thomas' regular-season production is nice, he's too small to be a top offensive option in the playoffs. The argument -- supported by his difficult series against Iman Shumpert and the Cavaliers last season -- is that teams go out of their way to put tall perimeter stoppers on him and block his line of sight in the playoffs.
I think that argument is outdated. As Paul Flannery reported in his brilliant Thomas feature story, the Celtics didn't have enough time to practice anything more than fairly basic Thomas pick and roll plays after Thomas arrived at the trade deadline last year. Their simplicity worked in the regular season, but was easily stopped once the Cavaliers scouted them.
A summer of introspection and practice has erased that problem. The Celtics have perfected more diverse play designs that get Thomas the ball in good spots while keeping defenders off balanced. They'll have Thomas give up the ball early in sets and run around a maze of screens so he can get the ball back with his defender trailing the play.
This negates Thomas' size disadvantage. How much impact does a taller defender really make if he's too slow to keep up with Thomas' speed?
28. Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge, hi-lo experts
The LaMarcus Aldridge that starred in Portland was very left-block dominant. That's where he wanted the ball and that's where the Blazers aligned their offense to make it happen. Those demands don't fly in San Antonio's equal-opportunity offense, so there was some concern that Aldridge would struggle scoring away from his favorite spot on the floor.
That fear was short-lived. Aldridge kept an open mind and quickly realized whatever familiarity he lost was more than made up by the Spurs' excellent entry passing. Most notably, he developed perfect hi-lo synergy with Tim Duncan, as if they've played together for years.
The Spurs' genius: making it easier to slip just a little bit out of your comfort zone.
29. LeBron James parking his butt in the paint
This is Cleveland's go-to after-timeout play and it's nearly impossible to stop. As the ball moves from one side to the other, LeBron James swims inside of his defender on one side of the paint and parks his ass right underneath the hoop for an easy layup.
Good luck trying to get over the top of LeBron James.
30. Charlotte's ring around the rosie for Al Jefferson post-ups
The Hornets are very careful to note that their much-ballyhooed new offense still leaves plenty of room for Al Jefferson to go to work on the block. One way they marry these two incongruent philosophies is to run a pick and pop on Jefferson's side, slide their other perimeter players along the three-point arc and quickly whip the ball around the perimeter for Jefferson to duck in on the opposite block.
This gives Jefferson better post position and more room to go to work because the defense is already scrambling.
31. Stephen Curry, the NBA's best screener
On top of all his other superlatives, Stephen Curry might be the NBA's most dangerous screen-setter. He ushers Draymond Green to the basket in inverted pick and rolls and helps players wiggle free off the ball.
Using Curry in this manner may seem unconventional, but there's a reason it's so effective. The fundamental purpose of any screen is to get someone else open, after all. That means the natural defensive strategy is to do whatever it takes to prevent that someone else from getting open, even and especially if it means having the screener's man leave his assignment to help that task.
Leaving Stephen Curry for even a split second, however, is incredibly foolish. That essentially takes his own man out of the play, forcing the screenee's defender to fend for himself. No wonder the other Warriors always get open.
32. The creaky Heat speeding it up
The Heat's offense was a slow bore earlier in the year. They lacked half-court speed and shooting, and coach Erik Spoelstra's intricate sets were taking too much time to execute.
So, Spoelstra made a key, yet simple adjustment in late January to speed the team up. Instead of always looking for the point guard, players were instructed to grab rebounds and immediately look to push or pitch ahead. That freed other players to run the wings and forced the defense to match up more quickly.
The switch invigorated Goran Dragic, empowered Justise Winslow and, somewhat paradoxically, made life easier for Luol Deng, Joe Johnson and Dwyane Wade. Skeptics wondered how the older players on the team had the speed to pull this off, but they bought into the simplicity of the concept and scored easier buckets. Their decision was simple: either dribble it up themselves or haul ass down the wing.
The switch means the Heat essentially had two seasons in one. In the first half of the year, they were a slow team built around Bosh's skills. In the second half, they compensated for Bosh's absence by beating the defense up the floor before it got set. From Jan. 26 on, Miami averaged nearly four more possessions per game than before, surging from second-to-last in pace to the middle of the pack. That's why they're still an East threat even without Bosh.
33. "How did the Spurs beat them on that play AGAIN?"
The Spurs have been running this play for years in tight spots. They will run it again in a tight spot in the next two months, and their opponent will wonder how the hell they failed to stop it.
34. The Warriors' simple high-post splits
The high-post split is the simplest concept in the world. Throw the ball into the post, bring two guards to the same spot and have them dart in different directions. Everybody knows one is cutting to the basket and the other is sliding back to the perimeter. You would think it'd be easy to stop.
And yet, nobody can.
35. Coaches playing defense from the sidelines
Because NBA teams switch sides at halftime, they are guaranteed to spend one half trying to score adjacent to the opponent's bench. The choice is up to the visiting coach, and normally, they prefer to have their defense nearby in the second half.
Publicly, the reason is that they feel most comfortable if they are in position to call out defensive coverages when the game is on the line. Privately, this feels like a better justification.
I don't mean to single out Dwane Casey, because he's far from the only offender. The Heat coaching staff is notorious for "shouting instructions" right as an opponent squares up for an open three.
And though the Nuggets aren't in the playoffs, who can forget Mike Malone's defensive stance?.
Absolute mayhem at the end of regulation between Mavs/Nuggets pic.twitter.com/zynrAe00Tz
— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) March 7, 2016
Players do this too. Here's one of many examples:
But there's something particularly amusing about coaches acting like your lazy friend playing pick-up basketball defense. They can plausibly deny these sneaky tactics by suggesting they're merely shouting defensive instructions, but the Heat players don't need their coach to tell them they should close out on Damian Lillard. I will forever believe these coaches are just trying to distract players by shouting.
And I'm all for it. Embrace your pettiness, coaches.
36 The unstoppable play
Stephen Curry-Draymond Green pick and roll. Nobody has a solution yet.