The NBA Playoffs begin Saturday, but these NBA teams and players have been building up to this moment for years. They’ve honed their skills, sharpened their set plays, and built in different counters to keep defenses off balance. The game is breathtaking, but there is a technical side to it that fuels those amazing athletic feats.
This list will attempt to celebrate some of those cool nuts and bolts that make the NBA’s athletic greatness possible. It’ll require some close viewing to spot these plays and player quirks, but they appear all the time. Consider this a hunt for the Easter Eggs of the NBA Playoffs.
Last year’s list had 36 items. Several of those still apply this year, but we’ve added an additional 31 for you to find as you watch these games. Each of the 16 teams is represented at least once. If there are any other special plays or player quirks you’d like to highlight, drop them in the comments section. These teams and players do amazing things that should be celebrated, and I’m sure I missed a bunch.
In no particular order:
1. Russ in the high pick and roll — with many twists
Every list should start with Russell Westbrook, so let’s begin by analyzing how the Thunder use him.
A majority of the Thunder’s offense ends with a Westbrook high pick and roll. That’s what happens when you have Russ and not much else.
To add some variety into the mix, the Thunder tinker with the screening angles on those high screens. They’re one of the main practitioners of the Spain pick and roll, a staggered double screen that asks the second man to pick off the help defender or pop into open space. But they don’t always run those double screens with the same two people. Sometimes, they have both big men do the deed.
Sometimes, a guard sneaks in.
Sometimes, they’ll have a third player screen off the screener’s defender before he sets a pick for Westbrook.
Plus, you’ll often see Steven Adams or Enes Kanter screening off their own man instead of Westbrook’s. This is a Thunder routine ever since the days of Kendrick Perkins, and it works because Westbrook is usually fast enough to beat his own guy. Instead of drawing help, Westbrook can waltz to the rim without anyone in his way.
These wrinkles allow Billy Donovan to disguise what everyone knows is coming.
2. The Boston Loop
Back in February, I noted a pet play the Celtics run for Isaiah Thomas. He hands the ball off to one big man, loops around both sides of the paint, and then pops out to receive a dribble handoff going to his left. This allows him to run away from bigger, slower defenders and get to the basket.
But the reason that play works is that it’s flexible. The Celtics have a different version of it when Thomas is on the bench that ends with Marcus Smart parking his butt in front of the basket.
They can also have Smart slip to the basket for a layup off Thomas’ curl.
They can bring the ball to the other side of the court and have Al Horford and Avery Bradley run a dribble handoff.
More recently, the Celtics have used Thomas to set an unsuspecting backscreen to free the power forward for a backdoor lob. The defense thinks Thomas is coming back to the ball like usual and are left unprepared for this wrinkle.
Brad Stevens: Pretty clever.
3. Kawhi the bulldozer
The irony about Kawhi Leonard turning into one of the league’s scariest isolation players is that you don’t think of him having a signature move. He just gets by dudes without dancing around.
The behind-the-back dribble is decent here, but look how much ground Leonard covers against Jerami Grant without going side to side.
And look at Leonard bulldoze J.J. Redick after a simple in-and-out dribble.
This speaks to Leonard’s core strength. The goal of any one-on-one player is to thrust their shoulders by the defender to create a driving angle. Most great ones do so by moving laterally or changing speeds, but Leonard accomplishes the goal by going straight ahead. He forces defenders to open up, and they just bounce off him when they try to catch up.
That also facilitates Leonard’s deadly step-back jumper. He creates space with his body as much as his feet.
4. Giannis as the point guard and the big man ... at the same time
You know the nice thing about having a 7’ lead ball-handler? He can also play like a 7’ big man on the same play.
On this common set, Antetokounmpo dribbles up the left side and runs off a staggered double screen involving the point guard and one big man. As the big man rolls, the point guard will pop back to the left wing. If Antetokounmpo has an opening, great! If the big man is open, even better!
But if not, Antetokounmpo can then toss the ball back to the point guard and immediately transition into another pick and roll with him diving to the basket. He goes from point guard to big man, all in a few seconds.
You’ll see this more often when Matthew Dellavedova is in the game than Malcolm Brogdon, but it’s still a terrific ace in the hole whenever the Bucks want.
5. The Cavaliers’ UCLA Seal
This is a thing of beauty.
It looks like a standard HORNS set, with LeBron James setting up at the elbow and another forward stationed on the opposite side. Once Kyrie Irving swings it to the wing, they toss the ball to LeBron in the high post. By that point, Irving looks to be in the middle of a shuffle cut, but he’ll stop to seal his own guy and give James a lane to drop the touch backdoor pass. Only LeBron can make that delivery in that way.
The only difference is that Tim Duncan doesn’t make one-handed touch passes like LeBron.
6. The Cavaliers’ HORNS Rip
Speaking of unstoppable Cavaliers plays, they’re still running this one that I highlighted last year. When James plays with four reserves, he becomes the league’s scariest dive man on an alignment that has too many threats to cover.
LeBron rolling to the basket sucks everyone inside, which opens up Channing Frye or other shooters on the opposite side. Plus, the pre-play motion means that the point guard has a step on his man, allowing him to create the two-on-one advantage needed to activate the other threats.
This is Cleveland’s go-to set early in the second and fourth quarters. Good luck addressing it.
7. Steph the magnet
We talked about this last year, and it still keeps happening.
It’s like tossing a piece of bread to a group of pigeons.
8. James Harden sizing up a big man on a switch
How terrifying is this for DeAndre Jordan?
*Hubie Brown voice* You’re DeAndre Jordan. You know you’re already at a disadvantage covering most guards, much less James Harden. You know that Harden is equally capable of shooting the three, attacking the hoop, or stopping on a dime to change directions. You also know that he can find the open man, and that you might need to deal with a screen at any angle. You’re not capable of accelerating and decelerating like Harden does. Plus, you know that if he gets a step, you can’t chop your arms down and foul him.
So how are you supposed to stop him?
9. The Paul George Screen Maze
Paul George can be frustrating because he goes one-on-one for tough shots too often. He can make those, and he has been making those down the stretch to lead Indiana into the playoffs, but you wish he’d make life easier on himself.
He becomes especially dangerous when he remembers how good an off-ball player he is. This is a Pacers screen-the-screener set they’ve used for several years, and it still works.
I broke this thing down in 2013. Teams still struggle to stop it.
10. The Gordon Hayward backdoor lob
Quin Snyder has a beautiful offense that takes advantage of his team’s collection of playmakers at every position. This is my favorite set play the Jazz run.
That pre-play motion usually ends with Hayward coming back to the ball at the top of the key. But this time, Hayward saw Austin Rivers overplaying him and broke backdoor for the lob pass. Utah catches teams every couple of nights with this read.
11. Jimmy Butler’s Dwyane Wade impression
The more Jimmy Butler hangs around Dwyane Wade, the more their games start to blend together. Once upon a time, Wade was known for his pristine mid-range shooting, fearless knifing through defenders in the lane, long Euro steps through traffic, and lightning-quick first steps that swung through defenders and caught them flat-footed.
That sure sounds like Butler’s game, too. Like Wade, Butler loves to decline ball screens with sharp moves to his right.
Like Wade, Butler swings his arms up as he maneuvers through the lane to protect the ball.
Like Wade, Butler takes gigantic strides once he picks up his dribble, tucking the ball into his body like a running back hitting the hole.
Chicago is a bizarrely constructed team, but it’s been fun seeing Butler pick up a few of Wade’s old tricks.
12. Portland’s flare screens
Watching Terry Stotts’ offense is like watching cars drive around a race track. The Blazers loop their perimeter players from one side of the three-point arc to another, using that setup motion to initiate whatever they want to run.
When LaMarcus Aldridge was in town, that motion usually served to create the best passing angles to dump the ball into the post. Since his departure, Portland has used these sequences to set up the right angles for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum pick and rolls. As Portland’s roster changed, so did its system.
That required the big men to play a different role: setting flare screens to keep the guards moving. It’s especially fun when those flare screens lead directly to open shots.
But they also act as a way to occupy the defense’s attention when they want to get Lillard and McCollum off a pick and roll. Notice how Myles Turner points at Allen Crabbe as he flares to the corner, which slows him down when trying to get in position to contain Lillard.
That’s why it’s hard to load up on Lillard and McCollum. The defense isn’t just stretched. It’s also distracted.
13. The Toronto Weave
This is the Raptors’ favorite pick-and-roll play. The weave gets the defense moving and enables Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to attack the hoop with a full head of steam.
Look how far out that screen is set on the court. That distance allows Lowry to walk into a three if necessary.
But the motion that occurs before the screen is set also scrambles the defense, which means Lowry can build up momentum before he meets the big man defender to change speeds, attack, and either score or find his big man.
DeRozan isn’t the shooter Lowry is, but he’s able to take the space yielded to him to put the big man on skates, as he does to Nerlens Noel.
Other teams run this weave action, but few do it that far away from the basket. That stretches the defense out and facilitates the Raptors’ devastating driving ability.
14. John Wall’s jump passes
I’ve seen it a million times and it never ceases to amaze me. John Wall speeds down the court in transition, flies towards the basket, looks dead in the water ... and somehow finds a three-point shooter out of the corner of his eye.
These are passes that shouldn’t exist. The awareness and confidence to even try this kind of pass is what makes Wall such a thrilling player.
It’s also what makes the Wizards dangerous. Washington is the league’s third-most-prolific transition scoring team, behind only the Warriors (duh) and the Jazz (who rarely push the ball). They make nearly 53 percent of their two-pointers and about 44 percent of their three-pointers after a defensive rebound, according to NBAWowy. Their game is to grab the rebound, get it to Wall, and let him go. The threats of him attacking and kicking out to three-point shooters create a devastating pick-your-poison situation.
(This is why the Wizards’ defensive decline since the All-Star Break is a concern. It ultimately affects their transition game, too).
15. Mike Conley’s stop and go
Conley had a career year this season, in large part because coach David Fizdale encouraged him to attack more often. That means using acute stop-and-go moves like this.
Conley’s hesitation dribble isn’t like most players’. He doesn’t need to put the ball down again to complete his move, which means he’s able to pull it off more easily in tight spaces. It also helps that Conley can finish with either hand, allowing him to pin his man on his back behind a screen from either side of the court.
Don’t forget how good this dude is.
16. P.J. Tucker, agitator
Toronto’s identity was transformed as soon as it acquired two key defensive pieces at the trade deadline. While Serge Ibaka has helped solidify the paint, Tucker brought a physicality that illustrates the Raptors’ new spirit. This dude is somehow able to get his body into ball-handlers without getting called for fouls.
There’s something visceral about Tucker swallowing up a driver like this.
17. Marcus Smart, agitator
The guard version of Tucker. He’s annoying and that (usually) helps the Celtics prosper. It takes chutzpah to wedge your body over a screen like this to draw an offensive foul.
Add in Smart’s serial flopping, and you have to appreciate his audacity — as long as he’s on your team.
18. The J.J. Redick pindown, with a twist
This is an old reliable the Clippers have been running for years. DeAndre Jordan comes to screen for Chris Paul, then immediately U-turns to set a pick for Redick to catch and shoot in the middle of the court. Jordan angles his screen so that Redick runs his man to him, maintaining the timing necessary to catch the defense off guard.
Since most teams know this is coming, the Clippers have been adding new wrinkles to this set. For example, watch how Redick ignores the Jordan screen to curl on the baseline around a staggered screen on the other side.
The shot missed, but Redick got a clean look out of it and the Clippers eventually scored after the offensive rebound. This further proves the old axiom: The best plays are the ones that alter one small part of a common alignment.
19. The JaVale McGee backdoor lob
Every time JaVale McGee enters the game, get ready for this set play.
The Warriors run a screen and roll, toss the ball to the other big man in the post and watch him immediately flip a backdoor lob high in the air for McGee to go get it.
It’s amusing how much the Warriors force this pass even if it’s not there. That’s how much they love playing with a big man that can jump.
20. John Wall and Bradley Beal have ESP
It looks like the Wizards are running a normal out-of-bounds play. Instead, John Wall and Bradley Beal do this.
These dudes have pretty good chemistry for supposedly not liking each other.
21. Tim Hardaway Jr. as the new Kyle Korver
When the Hawks traded Korver to Cleveland in early January, most assumed they were packing it in. Instead, they’ve rallied to sneak into one of the lower spots in the Eastern Conference despite injuries to Paul Millsap.
One big factor: the rise of Tim Hardaway Jr. Since the trade, Hardaway has averaged 17 points a game, attempting nearly six three-pointers a contest while hitting 37 percent. He’s been the Hawks’ best wing player and another example of their famed Hawks University factory.
It helps that they’ve plugged him directly into Korver’s role in one important play. Last year, I noted how the Hawks love to get Korver curling off a screen to get a top-of-the-key three off misses. Now, the Hawks do the same with Hardaway.
This is why the Hawks haven’t missed Korver all that much.
22. The Spurs deny the ball
The Spurs have a defensive sieve at point guard and hand major minutes to Pau Gasol and David Lee up front. So how did they finish No. 1 in defensive efficiency again? It’s because they’ve altered their fundamental system to prioritize ball denial.
We know Leonard plays like a shutdown corner, as he does here with Jonathon Simmons.
But he’s not the only one that disrupts the timing of an offense. Danny Green is also an expert.
So is Patty Mills, as Kyle Lowry and the Raptors learned.
Even Manu Ginobili gets in on the act.
Even Tony Parker does, too.
The effect is that the Spurs slow a normal offense’s flow and force teams into second and third options. Either they have to go further away from the basket to catch the ball, or they have to mentally adjust to the play being disrupted and take a split second to figure out where to go next. That allows the Spurs to load up the rest of their defense and squeeze teams into the inefficient mid-range area.
The point isn’t to force turnovers, although the Spurs finished with their second-highest forced turnover percentage ranking (8th, were 7th in 2004-05) in the Gregg Popovich era. It’s to deter teams from running their normal system.
23. The Bucks have six defenders
The Bucks play the league’s riskiest defensive scheme. They gamble all over the court, betting that their collective length will spook opponents into hesitating. Often times, it doesn’t and they give up bushels of efficient shots. (Ben Falk, a former 76ers and Blazers front office executive, wrote an in-depth explanation of the Bucks’ boom or bust strategy that’s worth taking 15 minutes to read).
But when it does work ... holy hell. Look at how many times they spook the Pacers out of shot attempts.
When you play the Bucks, it feels like you’re playing against seven players or four, depending on their level of execution.
24. The Blake Griffin duck-in
Injuries have made it harder for Blake Griffin to snatch the ball in the post and power through opponents. That means he increasingly needs to rely on smarts to get to his preferred spots.
One way he does that is to run straight down the middle of the floor to seal his man on the break. With more teams employing power forwards whose main job is to space the floor, Griffin can leak out on missed shots, park his ass on his man or whichever smaller player picks him up on a switch, and run him straight into the basket.
25. Draymond Green puts out every fire
Check out how many players Draymond Green guarded on this play.
In 17 seconds, Green:
- Started defending Blake Griffin.
- Correctly read that Griffin’s screen on Austin Rivers was a decoy.
- Jumped out on the Griffin/J.J. Redick dribble handoff to prevent Redick from shooting or turning the corner.
- Cut off Redick’s cut to the opposite wing, where Griffin was looking to swing him a crosscourt pass.
- Cut off a second Redick cut toward the basket.
- Ran hard at Rivers to make his three-point attempt a difficult one.
He got no credit in the box score, but he saved the possession for the Warriors.
26. Kawhi Leonard saying Gimmie Dat
Poor, poor Ben McLemore.
But McLemore isn’t the only one. Many players have seen Kawhi snatch the ball from their very hands.
Imagine how deflating that is.
27. Patrick Beverley’s flying long rebounds
The Rockets take a lot of long shots, and long missed shots end up in long rebounds. That’s why it’s a good thing they have Beverley. No guard is better at reading weird caroms off the rim and flying to the ball wherever it lands.
Look at this board!
Beverley doesn’t just rush in right underneath the basket. Instead, he hovers about 10-12 feet away, waiting to see where the ball will land. You can’t box him out because he’s looking to grab boards that fall behind you. In effect, he uses years of rebound training against taller opponents.
Russell Westbrook is the only player under 6’4 to average more offensive rebounds per game than Beverley, and he plays four more minutes. Beverley is a major reason why Houston ranks 10th in the NBA in offensive rebound percentage despite launching a ton of shots that aren’t designed to be boarded. (By contrast, Mike D’Antoni’s four great Suns teams ranked 22nd, 30th, 29th, and 29th in offensive rebounding.)
28. Rudy Gobert freaks everyone out
I mentioned this in the most recent Pictures Video, but it’s amusing how Gobert scares great players out of even trying to score. Watch John Wall quickly backpedal after he gets an advantage on his man in the pick and roll.
Watch Giannis Antetokounmpo, the league’s most athletic finisher, pump fake into oblivion right under the hoop.
I don’t blame them. Gobert is scary.
29. The old reliable Z-Bo/Marc hi-lo
Even after all these years, this still works. This is a play from 2017, not 2011.
30. Russell Westbrook grabbing and going
It’s well established that the Thunder gift Westbrook a handful of rebounds, whether by boxing out their men so he can swoop in, or by letting him snag all the uncontested free throw rebounds. I’m not here to judge the morality of this or suggest that Westbrook only grabbing nine legitimate rebounds per game is a reason to dismiss his MVP candidacy. All I’m saying is that it happens.
Yet there is a strategic reason to let Russ snag all the boards: It immediately kick starts fast breaks. Instead of relying on an outlet pass, Westbrook can cut out the middleman.
This argument has been the subject of much scrutiny during the MVP debate. On the one hand, Westbrook himself is inefficient and turnover-prone on transition possessions, as Neil Greenberg of The Washington Post writes. The Thunder as a team only score 1.08 points per possession on transition plays, a middle-of-the-pack mark.
But this overlooks one critical fact: It’s way easier to score in transition than in any other setting. The Thunder score 1.05 points per possession on average and far less than that when Westbrook is on the bench. If you take away those fast breaks, the Thunder’s offense would be significantly worse because they have very little spacing in half-court situations. The Thunder are also fourth in the league in transition opportunities, in large part because of Westbrook grabbing and going.
So, even if the Thunder are merely average at converting transition opportunities, they get so many chances because of Westbrook’s rebounding. By cutting out the middleman, he turns would-be half-court possessions into fast breaks. It’s that additional volume that allows Oklahoma City to even have an average offense overall.
So enjoy this. It’s a deliberate — and smart — strategy.
31. LeBron’s crosscourt passes
Still a delight after all these years. How can James tell that Larry Nance Jr. is flat-footed on the opposite side? He has a sixth sense.