While the regular season is a grueling slog that forces teams to think big picture, the NBA playoffs are a different beast. Each game becomes a chess match, where little strategic nuances can be the difference between success and failure. In these previews, we’ll take a look at one intriguing tactical quandary facing each team.
Golden State Warriors
- More McGee?
In what has to be one of the more surprising developments of the season, the previously maligned McGee has become something of a secret weapon on Golden State’s bench. During the regular season, the Warriors outscored opponents by 20.8 points per 48 minutes according to NBA.com, an insane number when you consider McGee’s past ineffectiveness despite his physical profile.
Now critics can easily point to a few factors before declaring McGee a changed man. First off, that 20.8 number came in just 739 minutes. With the way the Warriors picked their spots when it came to using McGee, it’s easy to see such an inflated number. On top of that, Golden State is, well, the best team in the league with four All-Stars in the starting lineup. It’s possible that the person picked for timeout entertainment halfcourt shots could stay on the floor with Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson and post absurd splits.
But in reality, McGee’s high flying act fits perfectly with a Warriors roster that contains such elite shooters. The previously maligned big man forces opposing defense to choose between an open 3-point shot by some the league’s most-feared snipers or a lob dunk on every possession McGee’s in the game. And in the 49 minutes McGee played against the Blazers in Round 1, we saw his contributions reach a crescendo.
McGee shot an incredible 78.3 percent (!!!) from the field on 5.8 attempts per game against Portland. As a team, Golden State shredded the Blazers to the tune of an offense rating of 132.5 when McGee was on the floor -- which would blow away the best mark in basketball history by a lot (if, ya know, it held up for an entire season and all that). As a whole, the Warriors outscored the Blazers by 48 points in those 49 minutes McGee was on the floor, an unthinkable point-per-minute edge!
Heading into Round 2 against Utah, the Golden State coaching staff has to see those numbers and be pondering an increase in McGee’s minutes. But things get a little dicey with the Jazz involved. Portland was easy pickings because of an underwhelming frontcourt and poor defense. Utah is essentially the anti-Portland in a lot of ways and when McGee was on the court against them in the regular season, he didn’t fare so well.
Across three games and 38 minutes, the Jazz outscored the Warriors by 15 points per 48 minutes, per NBA.com. Because of the presence of Rudy Gobert and even Derrick Favors, McGee’s defensive shortcomings are exposed and his lob threat is mitigated. In general, the Jazz are probably the worst McGee-matchup in the entire playoffs.
Yet 38 minutes is the epitome of a small sample size and McGee is coming off a white-hot series with a solid regular season track record of making the Warriors massively productive in his minutes. It’s possible that playing him more against Utah could ensure Golden State avoids the upset. Yet there’s also an argument that doing so could expose McGee and put the Warriors in an uncomfortably tight series.
- Iso-Joe in Round 2
At 35 years old, Joe Johnson wasn’t supposed to be doing this. The hero of the team’s grinding, seven-game series against the Clippers is now looking to recapture his first round magic against the West’s top seed.
Against the Clippers, Utah used Johnson in a variety of ways to exploit mismatches against their opponent. In particular, they aggressively targeted Jamal Crawford hoping to force a switch and let Johnson overpower him for easy buckets:
And in general, Johnson was their go-to guy down the stretch, digging into his iso-Joe Atlanta days for big buckets or, in a new, age-related twist, creating for his teammates:
It’s probably not debatable to say that Johnson’s heroics in Round 1 were the reason Utah was able to sneak past L.A. in a tightly contested series. Going into their matchup against the Warriors, they’ll need Johnson to work his magic yet again. But the question now is, who is the target and how effective can Johnson be?
Like most teams, Utah will likely try to involve Steph Curry in as much screening action -- that encourages switching -- as possible. The Jazz will look to attack Curry in the same way they did to Crawford (along with Austin Rivers and even Chris Paul). But even if Curry struggles to contain Johnson’s physicality in these switches, there’s a totally different dynamic to this Golden State squad.
Whereas the Clippers were an older, slower and generally more unathletic team, the Warriors have a roster built with long, versatile defenders capable of shrinking the floor and making life tough for players like Johnson. Whether it’s just stunting at his post up/iso’s versus Curry or doubling and forcing Johnson to make passes out around long-limbed and active help defenders, the Warriors present a much steeper challenge to this Iso-Joe redux.
But make no mistake about it, for the Jazz to make this a series, Johnson has to figure out a way to exploit this Warriors defense the same way he did the Clippers in Round 1. If not, it may be an easy path to advancement for Golden State.