2023 NBA Playoffs

Film Study: Key plays and actions to look for during 2023 NBA Playoffs

Breaking down some of the sets playoffs teams rely on to create offense.

The Kings posted the most efficient offense in NBA history during the regular season.

The 2022-23 season was the most efficient in NBA history, with the league averaging 114.1 points scored per 100 possessions. The league’s 3-point rate (the percentage of shots that came from beyond the arc) actually dropped for the first time in 12 years, but league-wide 3-point percentage (36.1%) was up from last season (35.4%) and league-wide 2-point percentage (54.8%) was the highest mark in league history by a wide margin.

There were a lot of great offenses across the league, and most of them will be featured in the playoffs, where they will remain difficult to defend. Here are some plays and actions to look for when the playoffs tip off …

1. The Huerter handoff

The Sacramento Kings had the most efficient offense in NBA history, scoring 118.6 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. And one of their most efficient actions was a handoff from Domantas Sabonis to Kevin Huerter.

According to Second Spectrum tracking, Sabonis handed the ball off to Huerter 477 times this season, 119 more times than any other handoff combination in the league. And when that handoff led directly to a shot, turnover or trip to the line, the Kings scored 1.19 points per chance, the best mark among the 15 combinations with at least 100 “direct” handoffs. The Sabonis-Huerter handoff has been more efficient than the James Harden-Joel Embiid pick-and-roll (1.14 points per direct chance) in Philadelphia.

The Kings were one of two teams that ranked in the top five in both ball and player movement. And Huerter was the King who moved the fastest (4.82 miles per hour) on offense. He rarely stops moving and his defender can have a hard time keeping up. Huerter and teammate Keegan Murray were two of the five players who shot better than 40% on at least 500 3-point attempts, and the former can get open 3s off the handoff if Sabonis’ man is sagging in the paint …

Kevin Huerter 3-pointer

If Sabonis’ man steps up, he’ll be open on the roll or (if another defender rotates over) somebody else will be open…

Keegan Murray 3-pointer

If the defense switches, the result could be a mismatch …

Domantas Sabonis layup

The Warriors’ two most-used lineups both had Kevon Looney at center and outscored their opponents by 21.2 points per 100 possessions over 501 total minutes. But given how quickly the Kings’ offense moves, the champs may defend them better with Draymond Green at the five.

Game 1 of Kings-Warriors is Saturday at 8:30 p.m ET on ABC.

2. Tatum as a screener

Much of the Boston Celtics’ offense is about finding a target for Jayson Tatum. Often, that’s a teammate setting a ball-screen for Tatum so he can attack a smaller or slower defender. The great thing about the Celtics’ 25-year-old forward is that he has a matchup advantage either way, able to shoot over smaller guys or drive past bigger ones.

Sometimes, the Celtics get those mismatches with Tatum setting a screen for a teammate. According to Second Spectrum, he set 8.5 ball-screens per game this season, up from 5.8 per game last season and 4.7 per game the season prior.

By setting a ball-screen for a guard, Tatum can get a switch and play the Dirk Nowitzki role, catching the ball in the middle of the floor and going to work from there …

Jayson Tatum isolation vs. Sacramento

If the defense doesn’t want to switch, the Celtics can gain a different kind of advantage. Sometimes, Tatum’s defender won’t want to leave him and the ball-handler will have a path to the basket …

Jayson Tatum screen for Marcus Smart

Tatum played two games against Atlanta this season. Over those two games, he set eight screens for the teammate who Trae Young was defending, and the Celtic who Young was defending set nine screens for Tatum. Those are very small sample sizes, but Boston was more efficient in the former situation (Tatum as the screener).

We should see a lot of both of those actions in Game 1 of Celtics-Hawks on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

3. Leonard on the left side

The last time the Clippers were in the playoffs (and before he suffered a knee injury), Kawhi Leonard averaged 30.4 points on a true shooting percentage of 67.9%, the highest mark in NBA history for a player who averaged at least 30 points in eight or more playoff games (63 total instances). And his numbers after the All-Star break this season (27.1 on 66.1%) weren’t far off from that.

The Clippers like to let Leonard go to work on the left side of the floor. Sometimes, they’ll get him there via a back-screen from a guard or wing. And sometimes they’ll get him there via a cross-screen from a big…

Kawhi Leonard post-up

They’ll clear the entire left side of the floor for Leonard, and if the defense doesn’t bring help, he can do his thing. He’s shot 54% out of the post since the start of the 2020-21 season, according to Second Spectrum …

Kawhi Leonard post-up jumper

If the defense bends in his direction, Leonard will have open teammates …

Kawhi Leonard assist to Russell Westbrook

The Clippers may be without Paul George for the start of the first round, but they still have a lot of shooting around their one healthy star. They’re the only team with eight guys who shot 37% or better on at least 100 3-point attempts this season. And when they begin their first-round series in Phoenix on Sunday (8 p.m. ET, TNT), the Suns will have decisions to make about who’s guarding the ultra-efficient Leonard and how much help that defender needs.

4. Brunson with an empty corner

The addition of Jalen Brunson was the biggest reason why the Knicks had the league’s fourth-ranked offense after ranking in the bottom 10 on that end of the floor in each of the last four seasons. He averaged 24.0 points per game (up from 16.3 last season), with about half of those points (11.8) coming on drives. His 19.6 drives per game ranked fourth, behind only Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Ja Morant and Luka Doncic.

Biggest jump, points scored per 100 possessions

Team 2021-22 Rank 2022-23 Rank Diff.
Oklahoma City 103.8 30 114.2 16 +10.4
Sacramento 109.6 24 118.6 1 +9.0
Orlando 103.9 29 111.3 26 +7.4
New York 109.7 23 117.0 4 +7.3
Portland 107.3 27 114.0 18 +6.7

According to Second Spectrum, Brunson ranked second (behind only Terry Rozier) in total “empty strong-side corner” pick-and-rolls. And often, two of those are set in succession. First, there’s a “pistol” screen set by another guard, often to get a switch …

Josh Hart screen for Jalen Brunson

And then a screen from a big to get Brunson toward the middle of the floor …

Jalen Brunson drive

If his defender tries to “ice” the screen from the big (in an effort to keep Brunson on the side of the floor), the big can flip the screen or Brunson can reject it and attack the opposing big man …

Jalen Brunson drive

You could switch the screen to keep Brunson out of the paint without having to bring help from the weak side, and the Cavs (who the Knicks face in the first round) have mobile bigs who have defended isolations pretty well. But that leaves a guard trying to defend a big man down low. Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein aren’t going to beat you in the post, but they will on the glass. The Knicks ranked second (first among playoff or Play-In teams) in offensive rebounding percentage and second-chance points as they won three of the four regular-season meetings and posted a 61-26 advantage in second-chance points during those matchups.

Game 1 is in Cleveland on Saturday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN).

5. The one almost everybody runs

None of the actions above are unique to one team. This is a copy-cat league and often you’ll see both teams run the same play in the same game. Every once in a while, you’ll see it in succession …

When you get all five guys involved in a play, all five defenders have to be on the same page. And the play above (a double-drag screen with a strong-side curl) works because (like the empty-corner pick-and-roll) it takes help away from the roll man. The first ball-screener (Joe Harris for the Nets, Cam Johnson for the Suns) is a dangerous shooter who pops out to the weak side. The second screener (Nic Claxton and Deandre Ayton) is the big that rolls to the rim.

And as those screens are being set, there’s a strong-side action – another shooter (Patty Mills and Mikal Bridges) curling to the corner to keep the other two defenders occupied.

If the initial screener’s defender helps on the roll, that initial screener is open on the weak side …

Joe Harris 3-pointer

And if help comes from one of the defenders involved in the strong-side action, the corner 3 will be there …

Josh Richardson 3-pointer

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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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