If the warriors were playing the celts during the regular season, they probably wouldn’t prepare for more than an hour. The team would do a shootaround in the morning, do a walkthrough, go through some pet moves from Boston, and maybe take a look at some personal videos before the game. Then they would go home or fly to the next city 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,” says Kerr. “You’re looking for every little advantage you can get. You go through all the scenarios as a team. All you do is prepare for that team.
“It’s almost a different sport.”
At this point on the NBA calendar, basketball is on a different plane than the regular season. Strategies that worked months ago are thrown out the window. Losses range from “Let’s get the next one!” to crush the soul, or worse yet, define career. And intensity on a possession-of-possession basis eliminates players who can’t contribute at both ends of the court. In order for teams to succeed at that level and ultimately win a championship, what’s needed in June is exponentially harder than what’s needed in January.
“It’s a completely different game,” says Max Strus, a Heat conference finalist. “The intensity and focus needed is 10x at this level. Those are the moments you want to be in.”
“It means more,” says JaVale McGee, whose first-place finish from the Suns fell to the Mavericks in the second round.
“Everything we do is much more detailed,” says Dallas center Maxi Kleber, a key player in the team’s three-point heavyweight attack. “We have a lot more information. Everything is so detailed that we know exactly how we want to attack.”
“The game is played differently, everyone is on edge,” says Kerr. “There is a level of consciousness, energy and physicality that heightens everything.”
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The difference in playoff basketball really starts in the movie theater. The Warriors, for example, can split 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 too small. Coaches are not only trying to counter as they were attacked, but also trying to anticipate how the other team might adjust. And the schemes can vary both within and between games.
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 trading more in the fourth quarter, including the pre-change. In Game 2, the Warriors responded to their difficulties by defending the three-point line, switching Klay Thompson to Al Horford, allowing Draymond Green to guard Jaylen Brown. Golden State was then in the best position to contain dribbling penetration, which stopped some of Boston’s three shots. In Game 3, Udoka adjusted his rotation and went to his small lineup at the start of each half. Their starting lineup played 14 minutes together in Game 1, compared to just 10 minutes in Game 3. And those are just a few of the obvious changes.
Who can stay on the court in the regular season versus the playoffs is another big difference between playing styles. Strus, for example, played 23.3 minutes per game during the regular season. His minutes increased to 29.1 in the postseason, where he started every game for Miami after being a bench player for most of the year. Meanwhile, Duncan Robinson has gone from starter to virtually out of the rotation. That’s because Strus could handle more reasonably at both ends of the floor.
In the regular season, Strus guarded isolations on 14.8% of his defensive possessions, according to Synergy Sports. In the playoffs, that number jumped to 20.6%. That increase was the result of Strus being relentlessly pursued by the likes of Trae Young, James Harden and Jaylen Brown in a way he, or any other lesser defender, would not have been before the postseason.
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 had 11 three-point attempts. Nine of those were the direct result of attacking the Celtics greats off-screen, including eight times he attacked Al Horford in takedown cover. In the regular season, Curry picked-and-rolled 1.9 possessions per game. In the playoffs, he’s running 8.4 a night, more than a third of his overall possessions. And considering the attention he commands – and the Warriors’ lack of secondary options – that number will almost certainly increase as the Finals continues.
“Every possession matters,” says Toscano-Anderson. “All possession is do or die. Attention to detail became a theme. You don’t want to put yourself in a hole. Every game has significant meaning, and that’s the difference between the playoffs and the regular season.”
That last point is not 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 multifaceted and the result of many factors – player rest, revenue, television viewership, trying to find the ideal number of games to play in a season – but it all comes back to one problem: trying to create a basketball that is so meaningful. for players and fans as the postseason is.
And that’s what makes the playoffs so exciting. All the hours of film, the schematic fine-tuning, the intensity, the physicality, the emotion, everything is a product of the desperation of winning a championship. And that urgency often cannot be artificially replicated.
For the Warriors or Celtics to win the Finals, the habits they built during the regular season are sure to be important. Defensive confidence, communication, improvement from Game 1 to Game 82 will be success factors. But who wins will depend on who is better prepared to face the challenge of playing a much more difficult style of basketball than the one that gave rise to this moment.
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