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.
- Isolate and attack
The playoff spotlight has a tendency to expose a player’s fatal flaw. For years, Jamal Crawford’s defensive ability has often negated his offensive prowess. At age 37, this trend has been no different.
The Clippers defensive rating has plummeted with Crawford on the floor during the regular season -- rising from a more than respectable 102.7 to a woeful 108.4, per NBA.com. To be blunt, there just isn’t much Crawford can do defensively to avoid becoming a liability. This will be something the Jazz are built to exploit.
Especially when trotting out bench-heavy units, some NBA teams lack the personnel to properly attack Crawford during his time on the floor. The Jazz, however, roll out an impressive collection of wings and point guards that all can shoot, operate out of pick-and-roll and even post up. In short, there will be no hiding Crawford on a deadweight offensive player in this series.
Every minute he’s on the floor, Utah should shift their play calling to get that player -- whether it’s Joe Ingles, Rodney Hood, George Hill, etc -- involved in the play. Now, that doesn’t mean that the Jazz should gum up their offense to go 90’s style iso-ball. Instead, they need to target Crawford through the strengths of their personnel.
Ingles is shooting 44.1 percent from deep and possesses a knack for making plays when having the ball in his hands. If Crawford is shifted onto him, the Jazz should run pick-and-rolls with Ingles as the lone weakside option, meaning Crawford has sole responsibility to dart inside to slow down a dunk machine like Rudy Gobert before scrambling out to Ingles to contest a 3-point shot.
Though Synergy’s defensive numbers have a lot of noise, Crawford ranks in just the 50th percentile when defending the ballhandler in pick-and-roll -- not overly impressive when DeAndre Jordan is usually helping out in that play. That makes him a perfect target for pick-and-rolls involving Hood or Hill. The Jazz could also get creative and try to force switches by having their wings screen for each other either on or off the ball, and then dump the ball in the post if Crawford winds up on Joe Johnson or Gordon Hayward.
Considering he played 26.3 minutes per game during the regular season, Crawford should see plenty of time during this series. If the Jazz don’t put a bullseye on his back every possession he’s in the game, they are wasting a golden opportunity to produce quality offense during the playoff grind.
Los Angeles Clippers
- Watch out for the misdirection
While the Jazz, like most NBA teams, make heavy use of pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-offs, they also do a great job of adding clever wrinkles to what seem like straightforward actions. Though it will be impossible for L.A. to cover all of these in walkthroughs before games, head coach Doc Rivers must make sure his players are aware that in some possessions, their help responsibilities may not be what they seem.
In particular, the Clippers need to look out for how the Jazz occasionally divert their roll men -- Gobert and Derrick Favors -- away from straight rolls to the basket in order to free up teammates, particularly Gordon Hayward.
This is a great example of how crafty Utah’s sets can be. On most teams, this would be a straightforward side pick-and-roll between Ingles and Favors. But for the Jazz, it’s all just a decoy to get Hayward -- who started the play near the paint on the opposite side of the floor -- a 3-point shot.
While that one, in which Hayward also acts as a screener, is a little more complex, Utah also has a number of quick hitters involving the same concept. Here’s one where the Jazz turn what looks like a double ballscreen into a pindown for Johnson:
Again, keeping track of all the ways Utah does this will drive a head coach insane. Instead, it’s one Rivers to constantly on his players to stay alert and not be lulled to sleep when they shift into help positions. If the Clippers can take away some of the open looks off these wrinkles, they’ll give themselves a leg up in this series.