NBA Playoffs: Monday offered a seminar on shooting and attacking

The NBA playoffs are a basketball seminar, in that they so dramatically and powerfully reveal what works and what doesn’t.

There’s no hiding in — or from — the playoffs. Every possession is fiercely contested. Back-bench players no longer steal second-quarter minutes. The energy level easily eclipses anything fans witnessed during the regular season. Every action must be that much tougher, more precise, more committed to its end goal.

In the 2016 NBA Playoffs, an early lesson which is coming through in a very pronounced manner is that when offenses and shooters are struggling, they need to create free throws if jumpers aren’t falling.

This might be the kind of lesson which should be filed under the category marked, “Things That Are Easy To Say And Hard To Do,” but playoff basketball is supposed to be difficult. Better teams, better offenses, better players find ways to do what’s not particularly easy.

On both sides of the divide, we saw on Monday night in the playoffs — in all three games — how offenses respond to bad shooting nights. It’s not a conceptually complicated point. You just need to take note of a few basic facts.

First, a brief prelude from Sunday night, the lead-in to this Monday seminar:


Game 1 of the Portland-Los Angeles Clippers series was marked by Al-Farouq Aminu (above) chucking one jumper after another, with the Clippers gladly giving him all the looks he wanted. Most of Aminu’s jumpers weren’t even close, so Doc Rivers continued to play off Aminu and put the clamps on Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The tension between Aminu’s need to shoot and his need to defer to teammates is in many ways the heart of this discussion, flowing into Monday’s action.

When an opponent dares a player to shoot, that player should try to take a few shots, because if he can hit those shots, the defense must adjust, and more precisely, overextend. A player who is dared to shoot must generally take that dare in the early stages of a game, because the benefit of making shots goes beyond the actual points in the present tense. This is basic basketball — if the player who is dared to shoot is unwilling to take that dare, an offense can essentially play 4-on-5.

However, there’s a limit to what Aminu did on Sunday night in Blazers-Clips. When a shooter takes the dare offered by an opposing defense, and he misses horribly, he shouldn’t keep taking the dare. He tried, but the approach didn’t work.

Move to Plan B.

What is that Plan B? Generally, make yourself useful in other ways. Occupy other spots on the floor. Move. Screen. Help out on the glass. Do things without the ball to aid teammates.

And… if you still want to look for your own offense, get to the damn foul line, already!

It might be hard to do, but on a purely conceptual level, it is almost always the right answer: Struggling shooters need to plant themselves at the foul line.

This is true primarily because free throws offer a gateway to easy point production, but it’s also worth noting because when a shooter sees the ball go through the basket — something made more likely by attempting a bunch of foul shots — he will often gain more of a shooting rhythm as a result.

Yet, beyond the value of free throws to the shooter himself, attacking a defense makes basketball less of a make-or-miss equation. If you can draw a foul, you don’t need to worry about making a live-ball field goal. You also apply a higher level of pressure toward the opposing defense, which allows for the possibility that it will make more mistakes or overcompensate in wys which will open up good opportunities for teammates.

We saw this on Monday — not just in the forms of the teams and players who attacked the basket, but in the ones who didn’t. It made a difference.

Start in Toronto, where Kyle Lowry — still fighting his jump shot — found a way to get to the foul line 10 times. Unlike Saturday’s Game 1 (4 of 9), Lowry hit his foul shots in Game 2, making all 10. Unlike Game 1, Lowry was more intentional about getting into the paint and forcing Indiana’s defense to collapse, setting up kickouts and sequences of crisp ball movement which outflanked the Pacers much of the night. A struggling shooter turned to an attacking game, and his team won as a result. Lowry understands how to play in the playoffs, while DeMar DeRozan — who didn’t attempt a single foul shot while missing 13 of 18 field goals — has not yet learned how to carry himself in the postseason.

Move to Oklahoma City, where the Dallas Mavericks and certified sorcerer Rick Carlisle — with a ragtag assortment of older players — responded to a 38-point loss in Game 1 by stunning the Thunder in Game 2:

Raymond Felton — yes, Raymond Felton — carried the Dallas Mavericks down the stretch, and a core part of Felton’s game was that he attacked the OKC defense. In his 42 minutes, Felton earned seven foul shots. His 11 rebounds might have come almost exclusively at the defensive end, but they reflected his commitment to get into the paint and fight the Thunder for every piece of real estate.

Compare the way Felton approached Game 2 with the way in which Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook went about their business. In 82 combined minutes (44 for K.D. and 38 for Russ), OKC’s dynamic duo created just nine foul shots, only two more than Felton’s individual total. As a team, the Thunder earned only 18 foul shots.

One has to wonder:

A) Why Durant was content to take fadeaway jumpers with Felton guarding him in the low post;

B) Why Westbrook — whose explosive burst and first step as a driver are at the top of the league — couldn’t get to the foul line more often against Dallas’s older defense;

C) Why K.D. and Russ collected 55 field goal attempts (making only 15 of them) instead of shifting to Plan B and parking themselves at the foul line.

In order to understand what it looks like when shooter-scorers understand how to get easy points, consider what happened in the nightcap of Monday’s TNT doubleheader, following the Pacers and Raptors on NBA TV:


That image is a video-game rendering of Klay Thompson at the foul line.

Thompson shot a lot of foul shots in Game 2 of the series between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. Aggressive moves to the basket — partly a result of his own initiative, partly a product of the Warriors’ floor spacing and their system of screens and cuts — enabled Klay to earn 16 free throws. He made 15. Given that the Warriors won by nine points, I reckon that was kinda sorta important.

Houston lost, and yes, the Rockets make us want to poke our eyes out, but — for all the ways in which he exasperates and irritates — James Harden knows how to make a home at the foul line. He baited Golden State defenders into tight spaces, whereupon they reached or hand-checked, and before the Dubs knew it, Harden was shooting free throws. He earned 15 and made 13. It’s a key reason the Rockets had a chance to win in the fourth quarter before they started to… yep… chuck long threes and not trust their attacking game.

One more note from Rockets-Warriors: Harrison Barnes — like Aminu on Sunday and Durant (7 of 33) on Monday — couldn’t hit the side of a barn with his jumper. He finished 1 of 10 from the field, continuing to put up 19-footers which weren’t particularly close. Barnes could have produced a decent offensive game with 12 free throw attempts. Instead, he earned only four foul shots. Had he traded, say, four field goal misses for eight foul shots, his output — like the scoreboard — would have been different. Barnes cannot enter future playoff series (especially the West Finals against San Antonio or OKC) trusting that his jumper will be there. He needs to be able to establish his ability to draw fouls and get to the line.


It’s easy to say and hard to do, but superior playoff teams — and players — will get to the foul line and attack the defense when mid-range or three-point shots aren’t falling.

Champions find Plan B. Pretenders get stuck on Plan A.

This has been your NBA playoff seminar following Monday night.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |