Bruin Sports Analytics
How NBA Basketball Changes in the Postseason
By: Anthony Rio
In the NBA postseason, the game changes drastically as compared to the regular season. As Draymond Green puts it, “Everyone [is] not made for the playoffs.” What he means by this is that all players will not maintain their regular season level of play during the playoffs due to the increased responsibility, pressure, and intensity. NBA basketball changes significantly in the postseason, and in this article, we’ll explore the specific ways this happens, specifically and only looking at data from the most recently completed 2020-2021 NBA season.
In the NBA playoffs, adjustments and countering those said adjustments are the name of the game. Teams play so many consecutive games against each other due to the playoff series format, causing a series-long chess match of adjustments following each game. Teams will try to take away what opposing teams do best and attempt to make them play “left” handed. For example, during the Hawks-Heat series this year, the Heat won handily in five games. They did this by shrinking the floor to take away the spread “pick n roll” game of Trae Young, Atlanta’s offensive engine. In doing so, Trae Young’s playmaking was sapped and Atlanta’s offense did not have enough outside of this staple. Atlanta’s offense struggled mightily during the series, only winning one game while Trae Young averaged 15.4 PPG and 6.0 APG (compared to 28.4 PPG and 9.7 APG during the regular season).
Game plans are much more extensive in the postseason, as each team knows all the sets, actions, and ATOs (plays after timeouts) of their opponent. Players are expected to know far more about opponent tendencies, thus their mental load- all the information they need to know and implement into their play- is far greater. Specifically, players are flooded with information and expected to know the defensive tendencies of all players on the opposing team, the plethora of moves and counters of their opponent offensively, and much more. For example, one tendency that a player guarding Steph Curry would be expected to know and be prepared for is his “hook passes.” By simply knowing this tendency and having high hands while Curry is driving and kicking, a handful of turnovers in a single series could be generated just based on being ready to capitalize on these careless passes.
The NBA playoffs bring a whole ‘nother level of intensity than the regular season. There is added stress and pressure in the playoffs because of an increased mental load, but also because the stakes are so much higher than a regular-season game due to teams facing elimination each series. Players are more locked on defense because of the extensive game plans, and they also play harder and expend more energy due to each game being more important and not having to conserve any energy for future games. As seen below, of the four conference final teams with nearly 20 game sample size, three had improved defensive ratings in the playoffs.
The pure intensity rises too because of the added energy in the building every night from the fans. Arenas are louder and more raucous, making it harder to perform for players in a more hostile environment. Another factor making the playoffs more intense is an increased workload, especially for the star or very good players. In the playoffs, rotations shorten and the best players see the floor more because coaches care less about rest and more about winning. As you can see in the graph below, “star” (All-Star level) players see their minutes significantly increase in the playoffs.
In addition to playing more minutes, these “star” players are used more when they’re on the floor. In the graph below we see how usage rate, the percentage of possessions where a player shoots or assists to end the possession, changes in the playoffs as compared to the regular season. As we can see, “star” players have increased playoff usage rates as they are more heavily relied upon to create offense for their team, whether that be scoring or playmaking.
Lastly, in the NBA playoffs, the game is played in a more physical manner. The game is refereed a different way than it is during the regular season, as more physicality is allowed and the criteria for a foul is steeper, leading to refs having a more lenient whistle.
All of this can lead to increased fatigue. When an NBA player is playing harder and their body is being increasingly taxed with an added mental load, this leads to both physical and mental fatigue. One area we see this fatigue effect is shooting percentages. For example, in the postseason last year, Joe Harris –statistically the best three-point marksmen in the league– had an abysmal shooting series against the Milwaukee Bucks in what was the series that bounced the Nets from the playoffs shooting 32.65% from 3 as compared to 47.5% during the regular season. Part of the reason he had this underwhelming performance was that he had to worry about and do so many additional things he didn’t have to do during the regular season, making his primary job as a shooter more difficult due to fatigue. Another source of fatigue stems from a schematic change we see in the playoffs.
In the playoffs, we see far more switching defenses. In turn, this causes fewer players to be guarding like-sized players. For bigs, this might mean trying to stay in front of a guard on the perimeter, or for a smaller player, it might be banging with a bigger-bodied player down low, which is generally far more taxing on the body than guarding players of similar size. In addition, switching leads to far more isolation play because increased switching lessens the effectiveness of many off and on-ball actions. The chart below shows how the number of isolation possessions per game jumped for 9 out of the 10 most frequent isolation players in the NBA during the playoffs.
What switching forces teams to do is just win matchups one on one, whether that’s beating a big off the dribble or mashing a small in the post. However, NBA offenses lean into increased switching by hunting matchups and spamming what works. What this means is that they will set a screen to initiate a switch to get the weakest link of the opposing team's defense onto the offensive team's best player and keep doing it over and over. So far in the 2022 NBA playoffs, we’ve seen this phenomenon extremely often. In the Warriors-Nuggets and Warrior-Grizzlies series, Golden State targeted the immobile Nikola Jokic on the perimeter in “pick n roll” and the smaller-framed Ja Morant as well. The Suns did this too, especially in game two of the conference semifinals against the Mavericks, as Chris Paul relentlessly hunted Luka Doncic down the stretch of that game to put the win on ice. This switch hunting leads to teams being less willing to play defenders liable to get picked on, further shortening rotations. Additionally, teams use offensive switch hunting to go at the opposing team's best offensive players and engines, to tire them out in the hopes of tempering their offensive performance and impact.
Adjustments are crucial to the outcomes of many NBA playoff series. One of the most simple types of adjustments is to coerce the offense into taking the shots the defense wants to give up. For example, Ja Morant is known for his amazing quickness, speed, and bounce which makes him the most dangerous slasher and rim pressure generator in the league. To counter this in the current Warriors-Grizzlies series, the Warriors are sagging off him and gapping him in an attempt to get him to shoot the most 3s possible and yield fewer drives and paint touches. During the three games he played in the series, he averaged 10 3PA per game, which is significantly higher than his 4.5 average 3PA per game during the regular season. In the playoffs, teams will give up certain shots that teams and players don’t typically take a lot of. This is one instance where Draymond’s quote directly applies, as few players are comfortable with shooting these shots over and over when they are being left open on purpose, something that is far more common during the postseason. This “gapping” that the Warriors are doing to Ja is not just unique to a strategy against him. Many so-so shooters are “gapped” far more in the playoffs because by sagging off these players, the defense is able to shrink the paint and give up fewer rim attempts while providing more help defense. A recent blatant example of this was the Milwaukee Bucks guarding Celtics guard Derrick White with their center Brook Lopez during game 7 for the eastern conference semifinals. Lopez roamed near the basket to limit the Celtics’ rim attempts, paying no respect to White as a shooter and not coming within five feet of him when he was outside of the three-point line. This resulted in White shooting 1/10 from the field and 1/6 from 3, scoring 3 points in 18 minutes while allowing the Bucks additional help defense.
Teams execute strategies like this as they prioritize minimizing the open and semi-open rim attempts and corner 3s that they give up, to lower the “best” shots teams try to take. The reason for this is that corner 3s are the most efficient 3-point shot and rim attempts are the most efficient 2-point shot. In the graphs below, we see that corner 3PA and rim attempts drop in the playoffs compared to the regular season for the majority of teams as defenses prioritize taking away these looks.
To counter this we see increased midrange attempts in the playoffs, as teams prioritize shot quality over shot location.
By taking the statistically least efficient shot, offenses are taking the shots defenses want to give up, but in that same breath, these shots are more open and thus a higher quality because of the defensive strategy. In addition, we see more above the break 3s being shot as that is what teams want to yield. It’s not a coincidence that both teams in the NBA finals last year – the Bucks and Suns– were the only respective playoff teams to win a series and not have their above the break 3PA shot diet increased.
Overall, NBA basketball really does change in the playoffs. Teams truly lock-in to more extensive game plans, which leads to adjustments and counters throughout a series. There is far more responsibility and mental load on the player's plates. Playoff basketball has higher stakes with more intensity and pressure, making it harder to play at the level players are accustomed to performing in the regular season. The game is more taxing on player’s bodies due to increased physicality and minutes played. Playstyle becomes more isolation-heavy as teams ratchet up their switching and defensive effort. Typical shot location distributions shift, with fewer corner 3PA and rim attempts being allowed. All of these factors lead to a more captivating and strategic version of basketball for fans to watch as every possession matters more, having the power to swing the outcome of each game.