2022 NBA Playoffs

Film Study: Key plays and actions to look for during NBA Playoffs

Breaking down the offensive maneuvers contenders use to create opportunities for their star players.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champion Bucks will face the Bulls in the first round.

The playoffs are the stage where the NBA’s stars shine brightest. With their seasons on the line, the league’s best players will have the ball in their hands more, and they’ll be asked to make big plays in big moments.

But how will teams get their stars the ball and in the position to score? Here are some plays and actions to look for when the postseason tips off:

1. The Suns go to Spain

The “Spain” or “stack” pick-and-roll is used throughout the league, and a couple of examples from the Suns themselves were noted in this space last season. They run it a lot, which means that Chris Paul is getting more experience with it, which means that Paul is mastering it.

For review, the Spain pick-and-roll is (usually) a standard high pick-and-roll at the top of the floor, with a third offensive player setting a back-screen on the guy defending the original screen-setter. For the Suns, it’s usually Deandre Ayton setting the ball screen for Paul and Devin Booker setting the back-screen.

The Suns’ final game in which their starters played was Friday in Utah, and the Suns put it away with Spain. Mike Conley trailed Paul after getting hit by Ayton’s screen and Rudy Gobert got bumped off by Booker’s screen, forcing Royce O’Neale (Booker’s defender) to pick up Paul, who found Ayton rolling to the rim …

Suns Spain pick-and-roll

A more common outcome is Booker getting an open 3 …

Suns Spain pick-and-roll

The Suns can also change things up by having Ayton screen for Booker instead of vice-versa …

DeAndre Ayton screen for Devin Booker

They’ve also recently run a Spain pick-and-roll along the sideline …

The Suns have four possible opponents in the first round, with their series set to begin on Sunday. The team that defended them the best this season (103.5 points allowed per 100 possessions over a four-game split) was the LA Clippers. The Suns had both Paul and Booker for just two of those four games (the Suns’ two wins), but they scored just 109.5 per 100 (less than the league average) in their 58 minutes on the floor together.

2. Milwaukee’s three-star action

Like the team they beat in last year’s Finals, the Milwaukee Bucks like to put three players in one action. They’ve recently been closing games with a staggered pick-and-roll where Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo both set ball-screens for Jrue Holiday.

The Bucks used the action (which begins with an Antetokounmpo screen for Middleton) to get a couple of key buckets in their win in Philadelphia at the end of March. The first was a lob for Antetokounmpo …

Jrue Holiday lob to Giannis Antetokounmpo

The second was a wide-open pull-up 3 for Holiday …

Jrue Holiday pull-up 3-pointer

Most actions involve two offensive players, which means that there only has to be an understanding between two defenders in regard to how they’re going to guard it. But running an action (Spain or a staggered screen or something else) with three guys forces three defenders to all be on the same page. That’s easier said than done, and in the second Bucks example above, some confusion between Tobias Harris and Georges Niang (when Antetokounmpo first screens for Middleton) allows Holiday to step right into the uncontested 3.

Bucks-Bulls gets started on Sunday. After an ugly win in January, the Bucks scored 121.6 points per 100 possessions over their three post-All-Star wins vs. Chicago, completing the series sweep.

3. The Miami back-screen

The Miami Heat don’t beat you with individual offensive play. They’re going to screen and cut, keeping a defense on its toes and waiting for it to make a mistake.

Many mistakes are made on back-screens. And only the San Antonio Spurs (668) set more back-screens than the Heat (650) this season, according to Second Spectrum tracking. Shooters make the best screeners (because their defenders don’t want to leave them) and Duncan Robinson ranks sixth among individuals with 123 back-screens set.

One action that the Heat run often is Robinson (or Max Strus in his place) setting a back-screen for Bam Adebayo after the ball is entered into the high post on the other side of the paint …

Duncan Robinson back-screen

If the defense doesn’t defend the back-screen as poorly as the Thunder did in the above example, Robinson (or Strus) then becomes the focus of the action. Below is a different set-up (Kyle Lowry’s post catch is on the wing), but we see Robinson curl off two screens after setting an initial back-screen for Strus …

Duncan Robinson 3-pointer

Brad Wanamaker (and Myles Turner) defended that pretty well, but the idea is that the initial back-screen can help Robinson gain some separation from his defender (who needs to help off him to prevent a lob or layup) before he uses another screen (or two) to get open for 3.

The top-seeded Heat have four possible opponents in the first round. Of the four, the Cleveland Cavaliers defended the Heat the best this season, allowing only 104.6 points per 100 possessions (third best against Miami overall) in winning two of the three meetings. Adebayo and Butler each played in only one of the three games.

4. The Doncic dribble-handoff in Dallas

Luka Doncic led the league in time of possession for the second straight season, and much of the Dallas Mavericks’ Doncic-centered offense starts with a high ball screen. The Mavs set 3,347 ball-screens (51.5 per game) for Doncic, a total that trailed only the number set for Trae Young in Atlanta (3,711).

But to make things a little more difficult for the defense, the Mavs will often set an off-ball screen for Doncic to give him some separation from his defender before he takes a dribble-handoff.

Here’s the first part of a play that the Mavs ran to start their game in Detroit last week, with Reggie Bullock setting a screen for Dwight Powell to catch at the 3-point line. Jalen Brunson enters the ball to Powell and sets a screen for Doncic …

Jalen Bruson screen for Luka Doncic

Notice also that Dorian Finney-Smith clears out the left side, leaving Brunson as the lone Mav on that side of the floor once Doncic comes for the dribble-handoff from Powell …

Handoff to Luka Doncic

A standard pick-and-roll usually has two shooters on the weak side, and the standard defense against it is for the low, weak-side defender to “tag” the roll man. The other weak-side defender can then position himself between the two shooters and have a (relatively) short close-out no matter where the ball goes.

But with only one weak-side shooter, the lone weak-side defender (Killian Hayes in the play above) has a longer rotation out to the perimeter should he tag the roll man (which Hayes does). Brunson attacks Hayes’ close-out and is able to get to the basket.

The Atlanta Hawks are another team that will often run some pick-and-roll with two guys on the strong side (often one curling off a screen from the other to keep the defenders distracted). It can throw a defense off if they’re not sure if the tag should come from the lone defender on the weak side or the low man on the strong side …

Hawks pick-and-roll

The Mavs and Jazz will open their series on Saturday (1 ET, ESPN). Dallas ranked 14th offensively overall, but had the league’s third-ranked offense against Utah this season, scoring 118.7 points per 100 possessions as they split four games. They scored 113.9 in 101 minutes with Rudy Gobert on the floor and 122.5 in 91 minutes with Gobert (who played in three of the four games) off the floor.

5. The Durant effect

Speaking of offenses that lean heavily on one guy … we can expect that, even with Kyrie Irving playing full-time, Kevin Durant will have the ball often for the Brooklyn Nets in the Play-In (and the playoffs should they get there).

Durant shot an amazing 56.9% from inside 20 feet this season, even though only 19% (153/791) of his inside-20-feet attempts came in the restricted area. The Nets can get Durant to his pull-up via the pick-and-roll and, according to Second Spectrum tracking, they set 13.9 ball-screens per game for Durant this season. That was up from 10.9 per game last season and his highest average since his MVP season of 2013-14.

One other thing they’ll do to get him the ball near the basket is just set a simple pin-down screen at the block, so that he can flash to the ball and catch at the elbow or the nail (the middle of the foul line) …

Kevin Durant jumper

If an immediate jumper isn’t available, Durant can play one-on-one from there. And an advantage of playing from the elbow or the nail is that it’s more difficult to double-team, because every teammate is a (relatively) short pass away. One big thing to watch when the Nets have the ball throughout the postseason is how well they execute when Durant is doubled.

In Charlotte last month, P.J. Washington immediately doubled Durant off Bruce Brown. Durant quickly got the ball back to Brown, who attacked the seam and got to the rim …

Bruce Brown drive

The Nets don’t have to stand around waiting for Durant to shoot or get doubled. Against the Cavs last week, Irving entered the ball to Durant and then got downhill with a flare-screen from Brown. Cedi Osman had to help off the corner and Kessler Edwards got a wide-open catch-and-shoot 3-point attempt …

Flare screen for Kyrie Irving

6. The Boston duck-in

One of the great things about the tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in Boston is that they’re often bigger than the guys guarding them. And one way to take advantage of a size mismatch is with a simple duck-in.

You can go to a lot of different things out of the “Horns” offense, where two players (usually the bigs) are positioned at the elbows and two others are on the baseline. And the Celtics will sometimes use it to get Brown or Tatum the ball inside against a smaller defender.

Out of a timeout in Detroit, Brown entered the ball to Marcus Smart at the right elbow. Tatum was in the left corner, with Cade Cunningham defending him on the high side (likely anticipating a curl toward the ball). Tatum took one step toward the ball, sealed the rookie, and had himself a layup …

Jayson Tatum duck-in

The Celtics also have a play (similar to one the Lakers have run for Anthony Davis) where Brown will look like he’s coming for a dribble-handoff out of the corner, but then make a tight curl to the basket …

Jaylen Brown duck-in

They can also ad-lib a duck-in against an unready defender in transition …

Jaylen Brown duck-in

As the 2 seed in the East, the Celtics will face the winner of the 7-8 Play-In game between the Nets and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Cleveland had much more success defensively against Boston this season, allowing 102.1 points per 100 possessions (third-best against Boston) as the Celtics won two of the three meetings (though all three were before the Celtics got really good). Brooklyn allowed 121.6 per 100 (sixth-worst against Boston) as the Celtics won three of four.

Lastly, here are some other actions to look for that have been covered in this space earlier in the season:

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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