It was the most anticipated matchup of the first round, but that all seemed to change 11 seconds into Game 1. The Jazz and Clippers were supposed to be incredibly evenly matched: Los Angeles’ success came from very good offense and solid defense, Utah’s from solid offense and very good defense, but the results ended up startlingly similar. Both had overcome disruptive injuries en route to 51 wins. Both had won 29 games at home, both had won 31 games against their own conference. But when Rudy Gobert crumpled to the floor on the first play of the first game, Utah’s hopes at competing in the series seemed to go down with him. How could they possibly stay competitive without their starting center, their defensive anchor, possibly their best player?
And yet the Jazz ended up doing more than just competing in Game 1. When Joe Johnson’s floater fell through at the buzzer, all of the sudden the tone of the series seemed to shift. Now the Clippers were the ones in need of a win to avoid digging themselves into a very deep hole. Three days later in Game 2, Los Angeles responded how you’d expect: they came out of the gate playing the kind of basketball they needed to, and though the Jazz made them work for it, they led wire-to-wire.
How were the Jazz able to steal Game 1, even without Gobert? What changed in Game 2 that allowed the Clippers to bounce back when they needed to? The series thus far has mostly boiled down to two strategic battles: pick-and-roll and big vs. small.
Coming into the series the foremost concern for the Jazz was the Chris Paul pick-and-roll (PNR). Paul is one of the best (if not the best) PNR players in the league, and he is particularly well suited to attack Utah’s PNR defense. As I noted before the series, Paul is an elite pull-up jump shooter, and has been consistently so over the last few years. The Jazz, meanwhile, play a style of PNR defense designed to take away open shots at the rim and threes in exchange for allowing the exact shot Paul is so good at: midrange shots off the dribble.
On the first Paul PNR of the series, the Jazz showed that they weren’t just going to sit back and let Paul hit open jumpers — or at least they were going to try to take them away.1 Derrick Favors, Gobert’s backup, came out and defended at the level of the screen, much higher than the Jazz normally bring their screener defender, cutting off any easy path to a midrange jumper. Paul, though, got a re-screen from DeAndre Jordan, and then a slight misstep by Favors, who wasn’t sure which side of the screen to defend, allowed Paul the space for the pull-up jumper he was looking for:
Usually the risk with a strategy like this is that the screener can now roll and get behind his defender to the rim, requiring the weak side defenders to help and opening up threes. But the Jazz hoped to take away the roll by helping off of players without three point range: Luc Mbah a Moute and whichever big man wasn’t involved in the PNR for LA (usually Blake Griffin). In this way they could, ideally, stay close to the LA shooters, JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford, and still take away the two players involved in the PNR:
While this didn’t shut down the Clippers’ PNR attack, it did seem to blunt its edge. There were enough frustrating possessions for the Clippers that their half court offense didn’t have the same bite it normally does. But LA did find some ways to get what they wanted, helped by Blake Griffin hitting the spot up threes Utah was daring him to take:
Those last two clips are out of a set the Clippers call “45”2, where the power forward sets a screen on one side of the point guard and the center sets a screen on the other side. It’s a set the Clippers have run for years, and one of the variety of PNR looks that opponents have to prepare for. This set represents only a handful of instances of PNR action in each game, but it’s a good illustration of the back-and-forth tactical battle these teams are engaged in surrounding LA’s PNRs. In Game 1, as we just saw, the Jazz had some trouble defending it, so they switched things up in Game 2, bringing one of the screener defenders out high in a show:
For the most part this change did not produce the results Utah was looking for — that last clip is probably the best the Jazz executed this defensive adjustment, forcing a contested midrange jumper. The Clippers were also able to have more success in Game 2 by pushing the pace and getting into PNR action in more dynamic situations, where it was harder for the Jazz to execute their defensive game plan:
The first two clips are nothing fancy, just simple transition PNRs, but because Utah’s defense isn’t yet positioned properly and waiting for the PNR there is more space and it almost looks easy. The last clip shows a PNR run out of an unconventional set up: Redick running out from the block occupies the weak side help, and Blake Griffin posting up in the lane takes away Diaw’s ability to rotate.
Utah’s success in Game 1 was in large part due to their ability to win the battle of big vs. small. They were most effective with Joe Johnson playing power forward, stretching out the LA defense and getting switches and mismatches that they were able to take advantage of. Over all 6 games against the Clippers this year, the Jazz are now +8 with Johnson at PF, but -24 with Diaw at PF.3
The Clippers hoped that they’d be able to punish the Jazz for going small by attacking them with Griffin in the post, but as was the case during the regular season, this proved surprisingly ineffective:
Partly this was due to timely help, but partly it was simply due to Griffin’s inability to get all the way to the basket against Johnson in the post. And if Griffin and the Clippers couldn’t take advantage of Johnson on the offensive end or on the glass, then staying big created more negatives than positives.
The Game 2 results remained somewhat similar — Utah was still best with Johnson at PF — but the Clippers did learn from Game 1. They changed up their rotation slightly, subbing Griffin out earlier so that his minutes weren’t as closely matched to Johnson’s as they were in Game 1. They also didn’t go after the straight Griffin vs. Johnson post up as they had previously this season, instead finding some less static ways to let Griffin do his damage:
Interestingly, Utah also made an adjustment away from the Griffin vs. Johnson matchup: when Marreese Speights, the Clippers’ three point shooting backup center, shared the frontcourt with Griffin, the Jazz put their center on Griffin and Johnson on Speights, after doing the reverse in Game 1. This seemed to be with the aim of allowing their center to stay closer to the basket, since Speights has been more of a perimeter threat than Griffin, but it had the side effect of reducing the Clippers’ opportunities to try to get Griffin looks in the post against Johnson.
So now, as the series heads back to Utah, both teams are poring over film and stats from these first two games and trying to determine what they might change in Game 3. How can the Jazz limit the LA pick-and-roll? How can the Clippers take advantage of Utah’s small lineups? What adjustments might each make to gain the upper hand?
How to Think About Adjustments
Charlotte vs. Miami likely isn’t the series you think of when you look back at the 2016 playoffs, even if it had its share of drama. The Hornets lost the first two games on the road, both by large margins, and ended up fighting back and forcing a Game 7, but what might have been most notable about that series was a fascinating answer Hornets’ coach Steve Clifford gave in the press conference following Game 2.
The Hornets had just lost by 12 after losing Game 1 by 32, and a reporter asked Clifford what adjustments he might look to make as the series went back to Charlotte. Clifford, a little testily, gave an answer that provides a lot of insight into how coaches think about how and when to make adjustments in a playoff series:
The conventional wisdom of playoff adjustments is that the losing team needs to change something, and if they don’t, their coach must be asleep at the wheel. That conventional wisdom comes from a results-oriented approach: the results didn’t match what you wanted, so you have to change something. But that’s just change for change’s sake, and ignores that what generated those results is part strategy, sure, but also part execution and part plain, old luck.4
Clifford is saying that, before you adjust, you have to determine in which of those three buckets the problem lies: “You [the media] watch these games, you just come up like something’s got to change [strategically]. Sometimes, you just have to do the basic things better.” The temptation will always be to change the strategy and make an adjustment, because as a coach that’s the only thing you have full control over. You can exhort your players to execute the strategy better, and you can pray that your luck changes, but if you want to be sure something will be different, the only lever you can pull is making an adjustment to Xs and Os. So that’s where everyone’s thoughts naturally go. But if the problem is execution, shifting the strategy will probably only make things worse.
How do you determine when and what you need to change? This is where film and stats can work hand-in-hand.5 Both are gateways to answering the fundamental question: do we have a problem, and if so, what is it? Stats can point toward one end of the court or the other, or a specific situation or action that might be causing trouble. Clifford gives an example of this: “Everybody’s asking me for two days, ‘What about starting Al [Jefferson] so your offense is better?’ Our offense was 1.07 points per possession.” The stats showed that the offense was not the problem in those first two games — the problem was that a top 10 defense was getting absolutely torched by a middling offensive team. Film can then help reveal what specifically, strategy or execution, is happening to generate those results.6
The Hornets had built their defense around forcing jumpers, which made them seemingly well-suited to take on a Miami team that ranked 29th in three point percentage during the regular season. But in those first two games the Heat had hit 51% of their midrange shots and 52% of their threes. Strategy, execution, or luck? Clifford’s position, and the data, seemed clear: “We’ve got to be cleaner with our basic coverages…It’s not all these great ideas or things that have to change or that this plan is terribly wrong. Sometimes, the other team just makes shots. That’s really what’s going on.”
Clifford was ultimately vindicated on this point: the Hornets’ defense was fantastic over the rest of the series.7 But let’s not fall victim to hindsight bias. Clifford’s thought process is worth paying attention to not because it turned out to be right, but because it gives us a glimpse of the enormously difficult balancing act that head coaches have to perform all of the time: walking the fine line between closed-mindedness and fickleness. The best coaches can trust in their process, even when the results don’t immediately follow, while remaining open to alternatives when necessary.
Heading into Game 3, the series still seems to revolve around PNR play and the big vs. small matchup. If the Jazz can slow the Clippers’ PNR attack enough (and a healthy Gobert would certainly help that) LA would struggle to manufacture points. Meanwhile, the Clippers need to play two bigs to have their best players on the court, but if Griffin can’t take advantage of Joe Johnson on offense or on the glass then LA will be at a disadvantage at the power forward position.
Both coaching staffs should use the Clifford framework to think about what adjustments to make. What are the problems of strategy, what of execution, and what of luck? The Jazz must ask themselves if there are further tradeoffs they need to make defending the PNR — perhaps helping more aggressively off of Mbah a Moute and Griffin when they are off the ball, or maybe not sticking quite as close to Redick and Crawford. Or they might conclude that they simply need to execute their current coverages better. The Clippers will try to determine if Griffin has just missed some makeable shots out of the post or if there are better ways to take advantage of Utah defending Griffin with Joe Johnson — maybe by creating movement into post ups instead of straight isolations, like they did in this after timeout play in their regular season matchup:
There is another battle in this series, though, that should have the Jazz concerned and seems to demand a true adjustment: Gordon Hayward vs. the LA defense. A combination of the Clippers’ style of PNR defense and the diligent on-ball work of Luc Mbah a Moute has made it very difficult, across all five games he’s played against the Clippers this season, for Hayward to generate the efficient shots he normally does. Against the Clippers, Hayward has taken just 12% of his shot attempts at the rim, compared to 26% in all games, and his assist rate has dropped precipitously as well. LA has successfully taken away his ability to get clean looks around the basket without creating obvious passing lanes to teammates, and instead have forced him into tough midrange jumpers.
The Jazz seemed to be aware of this, as in Game 2 Hayward looked to be passing up the midrange shots he was forcing in previous games against LA (after shooting 2/9 on long midrange jumpers in Game 1 he was 1/4 in Game 2). But, for the most part, he wasn’t finding other ways to be effective — he simply was passing up these shots. Just as the Clippers found ways to inject a little more unpredictability into their offense in Game 2, it seems likely that Hayward would benefit from something similar in order to free him up and get him back to the high-level playmaker he has proven to be against other defenses.8
There’s one last tactical skirmish that has been ongoing in these games that is informative: how to use and defend Luc Mbah a Moute when he is off the ball. Mbah a Moute has never had legitimate three point range in his career — he’s only started taking a significant number of three point attempts in the last 3 seasons, and even then mostly in the corners — which means defenses tend to aggressively help off of him when he’s spotting up. But Mbah a Moute has always been a savvy cutter, and this year is at least a passable corner three point shooter, so opposing teams have to decide how much to help off of him and in what situations. The Jazz have chosen somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of options, helping off of Mbah a Moute much more than they would if he had true three point range but not ignoring him completely. For example, here they are doubling off of Mbah a Moute to keep Griffin out of the middle on this post up, but not fully committing to Griffin:
In Game 2, though, the Clippers were able to mitigate this spacing disadvantage. At the end of the third quarter Mbah a Moute made a series of plays off the ball that resulted in three high percentage looks at the rim:
This isn’t some new wrinkle that the Clippers introduced in Game 2. Mbah a Moute’s off ball cutting has been keeping defenses just honest enough all season. It wasn’t a strategic adjustment — it was just better execution. Which shows, to paraphrase Clifford, that sometimes you just have to do what you do better. That sometimes the best adjustment might not be any adjustment at all.
- It is, of course, unclear whether they would have made this same adjustment with Gobert guarding the PNRs, but it seems likely since both Favors and Withey defended the PNR differently from how they did during the regular season. ↩
- Named (I assume) because it involves both the “4” (power forward) and “5” (center) simultaneously screening. ↩
- This stat is not straightforward to interpret: it’s complicated by the fact that the Clippers’ starting lineup is far better than their bench, and Johnson generally plays against the bench. But it does help illustrate that Utah’s success against the Clippers this year has mostly come with Johnson at the 4. ↩
- This can work the other way as well, making winning teams less likely than they should be to change something that needs to be changed. That idea comes from Kevin Pelton, who theorized that one reason for the “desperation effect” I described in my last article was exactly this “adjustment gap”. ↩
- If you’ve ever found yourself watching live basketball and not fully able to determine why a team is losing, you’re not alone: even the most experienced basketball minds can’t analyze everything they need to during a live game. They load up the video as soon as they can and attempt to diagnose what went wrong. As Clifford said: “I heard Pat Riley say this 16 years ago: ‘Until I watch the film, I really don’t know.'” ↩
- The reverse is also be true: film can help generate theories and questions that can be investigated further with stats. Ideally, both work in concert to aid the adjustment decision-making process. ↩
- Ironically, it was a lack of offense that caused them to fall short of a comeback. ↩
- Only 10 other players this season managed to shoulder close to the offensive load Hayward did while matching his efficiency and assist rate. ↩