If the Warriors were playing the Celtics during the regular season, they probably wouldn’t prep for more than an hour. The team would have a shootout in the morning, take a tour, review a few Boston pet games, and maybe check out some staff videos before the game. Then they would return home or fly to the next town and repeat the process 81 times.
In the playoffs? The difference, according to Warriors coach Steve Kerr, is “dramatic”.
“It’s hours and hours and hours of preparation,” Kerr said. “You’re looking for every little advantage you can get. You go through each scenario as a staff. All you do is prepare for this team.
“It’s almost a different sport.”
At this point in the NBA schedule, the basketball that’s happening is on a different plane than the regular season. Strategies that worked months ago are thrown out the window. Losses range from “We’ll get the next one!” soul crushing, or even worse, career defining. And intensity on a possession-to-possession basis weeds out players who can’t contribute at both ends of the field. For teams to succeed at this level and ultimately win a championship, what is required in June is exponentially more difficult than what is required in January.
“It’s a whole different game,” says Max Strus, conference finalist for the Heat. “The intensity and focus required is 10x at this level. These are the times you want to be in.
“It means more,” says JaVale McGee, whose Suns took first place from the Mavericks in Round 2. “It’s a lot of tension, it’s a lot of excitement about what’s at hand and what the future may hold.”
“Everything we do is much more detailed,” says Dallas center Maxi Kleber, a key cog in the team’s three-point heavy offense. “We have a lot more information. Everything is so detailed that we know exactly how we want to attack.
“The game plays differently, everyone is nervous,” Kerr explains. “There is a level of consciousness, energy and physicality that accelerates everything.”
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The difference in playoff basketball really starts in the movie theater. The Warriors, for example, can break down about 25 clips in a regular-season movie session, according to third-year forward Juan Toscano-Anderson. In the playoffs, that number can approach 70. No screen angle is overlooked, no adjustment is too small. The coaches not only try to counter the way they were attacked, they also try to anticipate how the other team can adapt. And the patterns can vary both within games and between them.
Consider what we saw between the Warriors and the Celtics. In Game 1 of the Finals, Boston coach Ime Udoka responded to Golden State’s offensive success by changing more in the fourth quarter, including pre-switching off the ball. In Game 2, the Warriors responded to their struggles defending the three-point line by trading Klay Thompson to Al Horford, allowing Draymond Green to keep Jaylen Brown. Golden State was then in a better position to contain dribble penetration, which prevented some of Boston’s three kickouts. In Game 3, Udoka tweaked his rotation and went into his small formation earlier in each half. His starting lineup played 14 minutes together in Game 1 compared to just 10 minutes in Game 3. And those are just some of the obvious changes.
Who can stay on the court in the regular season versus the playoffs is another stark difference between styles of play. Strus, for example, played 23.3 minutes per game during the regular season. His minutes increased to 29.1 in the playoffs, where he started every game for Miami after being a bench player most of the year. Meanwhile, Duncan Robinson has gone from starter to largely out of the rotation. This is because Strus could more reasonably fit on both ends of the floor.
In the regular season, Strus kept isolations on 14.8% of his defensive possessions, per Synergy Sports. In the playoffs, that number rose to 20.6%. This increase is the result of Strus being chased relentlessly by Trae Young, James Harden and Jaylen Brown in a way that he, or any lesser defenseman, would not have been before the playoffs.
Exploiting weaknesses until the other team finds an answer is perhaps the hallmark of playoff basketball. Stephen Curry is a prime example of the type of player who puts immense pressure on defenses. In Game 3, Curry took 11 three-point attempts. Nine of those were the direct result of the Celtics’ big screen attack, eight of which he targeted Al Horford in drop coverage. In the regular season, Curry ran pick-and-rolls 1.9 possessions per game. In the playoffs, he’s running 8.4 a night, more than a third of his overall possessions. And given the attention he commands – and the Warriors’ lack of secondary options – that number will almost certainly increase as the Finals continue.
“Every possession counts,” says Toscano-Anderson. “Every possession is do or die. Attention to detail has become such a theme. You don’t want to put yourself in a hole. Every game has an important meaning, and that’s the difference between the playoffs and the regular season.
That last point isn’t lost on the NBA, which in recent years has floated the idea of an in-season tournament to add another trophy to the mix. This idea is multi-layered and the result of many factors (players resting, revenue, ratings, finding the optimal number of games to play in a season), but they all boil down to one problem: trying to create basketball that is as meaningful to players and fans as the playoffs already is.
And that’s what makes the playoffs so exciting. All the hours of film, the schematic focus, the intensity, the physique, the emotion, it’s all a product of desperation to win a championship. And this urgency usually cannot be reproduced artificially.
For the Warriors or Celtics to ultimately win the Finals, the habits they picked up during the regular season will certainly be important. Defensive confidence, communication, improvement from Game 1 to Game 82 will all be success factors. But who wins will depend on who is best prepared for the challenge of playing a much tougher style of basketball than the one who’s been driving at the moment.
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