Before the NBA playoffs began, I listed 31 set plays and player quirks that these 16 teams use that you need to look closely to discover. Call them the Easter Eggs or the cheat sheet of the NBA Playoffs. Click the link to learn more about them. Each night, I’ll round up examples of those 31 set plays and examples of other fun plays or player quirks that you may have missed.
This edition of the Cheat Sheet features fewer cool plays because our three playoff games were a foul-drawing debacle, a fourth-quarter brick fest, and a blowout. But I do want to touch on back-to-back possessions that illustrate the complexity of analyzing Russell Westbrook and James Harden independent of their teams.
Also in this piece: the only two cool plays in Wizards–Hawks, the Warriors’ random screens, and the Blazers forgetting an obvious lesson from the first Easter Egg list. As a reminder: if you saw any other cool plays not mentioned here that you wanna appreciate, drop them in the comments.
1. The ultimate Russ vs. Harden test
There’s no easy way to figure out whether Westbrook’s shot-jacking is due to his selfish nature or the lack of options on his team. The answer is a little of both — and even that is unnecessarily simple.
To illustrate how difficult it is to come to a clear answer on the subject, consider these back-to-back possessions in crunch time.
The primary action in the play is almost the same. In both cases, the star player ran off a staggered double ball screen going to their left.
One subtle difference: Trevor Ariza is stationed on the opposite wing, whereas Andre Roberson is in the same corner as Westbrook is driving. Already, that’s a critical marker differentiating these teams. If Roberson could actually shoot the ball, he’d be in Ariza’s spot, which would give Westbrook more space. It’s hard to blame Westbrook for that.
Still, the two sets are nearly identical. What happens thereafter is not.
Here is what the Thunder’s spacing looks like as Russ runs off the picks:
And here is the Rockets’ spacing as Harden comes off the screens:
The other four Thunder players aren’t giving Westbrook any choices, whereas the Rockets have a beautifully spaced floor with plenty of outlets. At the same time, Harden is picking up his dribble and making an immediate decision to trust another teammate, whereas Westbrook doesn’t even think about passing.
Does the Thunder possession devolve that way because the Thunder have no shooting, or because the other four Thunder players know that Westbrook isn’t passing anyway and there’s no point in trying to get open? Is Houston aligning itself that way because they have the shooting to do it, or because they know Harden is more willing to actually find teammates in crunch time? The answer is a little bit of both in each case.
Let’s fast-forward a beat to illustrate this conundrum further.
Harden knows that he can throw the ball to Gordon and he can still be a threat from way out there. That makes the decision to give it up simpler. On the other hand…
… Russ could easily pass to Oladipo and trust him to cycle into a secondary action, but he’s not the threat Gordon is and the other side of the court is clogged. What do you do?
In Westbrook’s case, the answer is to drive into traffic and launch an awful shot with all five Rockets watching him.
In Harden’s case, it’s to enjoy Gordon driving and kicking to an open Beverley. The floor is spaced beautifully, so as Steven Adams helps on Gordon, Westbrook must help the helper and pick up Nene. The Thunder can’t cover anyone, hence the dagger.
Retracing the steps that ended in those two vastly different possessions off the same kind of play would take months and has no easy answers. Would Thunder players be more ready to make a play if they knew their star would actually pass to them? Or, would Harden flail his way into an awful shot without the lubrication of the Rockets’ pristine spacing?
By the same token, would Rockets players have less urgency to space the floor properly if they figured their star was just going to shoot anyway? Or, would Westbrook be more willing to make the cerebral play if he had teammates he could trust offensively?
Basketball is complicated. That’s why we love this sport.
2. The Bradley Beal dagger
The best plays are tweaks on existing sets that the opponent has seen a thousand times. The Wizards put away the Hawks by lulling them into thinking they were running their classic kill-the-clock set when they really wanted to run something else.
To the naked eye, this looks like the Wizards setting up for Markieff Morris to set a last-second ball screen for John Wall. Instead, the Wizards planned to sneak Bradley Beal off a Marcin Gortat screen for a three. The Hawks were confused and Beal nailed the dagger.
Terrific stuff from Scott Brooks.
3. Atlanta’s nifty after-timeout trick
Speaking of tweaks on existing sets the opponent has seen a thousand times, this was a great after-timeout set by Mike Budenholzer.
It was the only pretty thing they did all game.
4. Steph Curry’s random screens
We talked about great shooters also being great screen setters with Kyle Korver the other day. The reason is simple: navigating a screen often requires a split second of help from the screeners man, but because nobody wants to leave great shooters, that split second either doesn’t exist or needs to be condensed.
That’s why Stephen Curry is the master. Teams flock to Curry like a magnet, so when he screens for a teammate, it’s like giving that player an open runway. Watch him spring Klay Thompson on this transition sequence.
Thompson got the assist and McGee got the bucket, but the only reason they were open is because of Curry’s little rub screen. That’s his shadow impact.
5. The Blazers forgot about the JaVale 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.
And yet, the Blazers forgot.