Statistical Trends Through The Conference Semifinals

By Filippos Polyzos and Thomas Bassine

With two rounds of the playoffs behind us, we decided to take a step back and look at how the four conference finalists have stacked up statistically. We looked at the Four Factors to get a big picture view of what has gone right and wrong for each squad. We also examined the Synergy play type data to see how each offense compares stylistically with the regular season. Our research illustrates some of the primary reasons the Hawks, Bucks, Clippers and Suns have been successful so far in this postseason.

A word of caution: Don’t get over-excited by the numbers below. Due to a small sample size and the diversity & difficulty of each qualified team’s different opponents in the first two rounds, we must take all the values with a grain of salt (always look for context and possible inflation of such values). All stats were collected before the start of the conference finals unless noted otherwise.

Scoring

We took a look at scoring trends for the four remaining teams and there are a few points worth mentioning. The Bucks scored a mind-boggling 48 points in the paint (44.5% of their total points scored), thanks to the dominant force that is Giannis Antetokounmpo, while the Clippers generated just 33.9% of their points close to the basket. This shows that inside scoring was, is, and will be an essential tool in all NBA offenses. 

Next, we checked out the distribution of assisted and unassisted made field goals. This part will give you a solid background in order to follow the play type numbers that come next. The main take away is that Phoenix includes lots of motion and ball movement, using their patented Spain PnR sets, resulting in assisting an outstanding 61.3% of their FGM. The other three teams do not assist at the same rate; in general, in the postseason, offenses are often more stagnant and the pace slows.

Four Factors

Although the Four Factors have become less and less popular through the years, they are still capable of providing a decent overview of a team’s offensive and defensive performance. The factors will be presented in order of significance.

The Clippers have vastly improved their shooting efficiency, mainly thanks to their 40.1 3P%. Players such as Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum have increased their playing time, as a result of being really effective jump shooters and spacing the floor for their two All-Star teammates. Phoenix is averaging just over 55 eFG%, whereas Atlanta and Milwaukee have struggled with their perimeter offense (35.2 & 31.2 3P%, respectively).

With the exception of Milwaukee, the other teams have been quite careful and precise in their decision making, on account of their prolific ball handlers (Trae-Kawhi-CP3). The lack of a traditional play-maker has not been a negative so far for the Bucks; however they must be vigilant from now on. Their big-3 (Giannis-Middleton-Jrue) commits almost two thirds of the team’s total turnovers (9.1 out of 13.6 TOV).

The ability to grab offensive rebounds and renew the team’s possession has obviously been affected by the soaring usage of smaller lineups. Indicatively, the Bucks took advantage of their size and crushed the offensive glass, especially in the series against Brooklyn. Indeed, they are the only qualified team to have improved on that element in the playoffs, compared to the regular season. The spread offenses of Atlanta and Phoenix naturally weren’t able to generate many second chance opportunities. As for the Clippers, they had a hard time grabbing offensive rebounds against bigger teams in Dallas and Utah.

As far as going to the free throw line is concerned, the Bucks have held opponents to the lowest playoff free throw rate, at least partially a result of their patented drop pick & roll coverage, which allows more pull up shots.  The Suns and Hawks visit the charity stripe at an almost identical frequency, while the Clippers have shown the biggest rise in free throw rate from the regular season to the playoffs (28.9, a 6.7 percentage point increase).  If we look at opponent free throw rate, Milwaukee also allows the least free throws per field goal attempt of the final four teams. Atlanta, on the other hand, has allowed more free throws in the playoffs; this comes as no surprise playing against Philadelphia and the offensive juggernaut of Embiid. (We also witnessed the hack-a-Simmons strategy.)

Play Type Data

As we have noted previously, it is important to remember that the playoff play type data is skewed from repeatedly playing the same two opponents in the first two playoff rounds. In addition, we are looking at a small sample of games and possessions. We should keep that in mind when comparing this data to its regular season counterpart compiled over a larger number of games against the entire league. Still, this data can help us see how the offenses are stylistically attacking and adjusting. To see what types of actions are typically classified under each play type, this explainer by Cranjis McBasketball for Nylon Calculus is very helpful.

Increased Isolation Play

Each of the four conference finalists have relied more on isolation play than they did in the regular season. The Clippers and Bucks have had the largest increase in the share of their isolation play; they have utilized isolation on 14.7% and 13.1% of their possessions, respectively. 

A rise in isolation play is common in the playoffs as defenses employ more switching schemes and possessions end up becoming late clock affairs more often. 

Isolation possessions are not typically super efficient, but the Phoenix Suns have bucked this trend in the playoffs so far. Led by efficient iso play from Paul and Booker, Phoenix scored 1.23 points per possession on this play type in the first two rounds. Devin Booker in particular has emerged as a greater threat here, scoring almost 1.2 points per iso possession in the playoffs compared to just 0.85 points per possession in the regular season. We should caution though that the sample is small- we are talking about only 63 total possessions for Phoenix in this play type.

In the conference finals, it will be interesting to see if the teams keep attacking 1-on-1. Milwaukee will probably utilize isolation less going against the Hawks rather than the switching Nets defense. The Suns will get more chances to attack perceived mismatches playing against a switch-heavy Clipper squad.

More Pick-and-Roll Ball Handling Finishing For Phoenix and Atlanta

The Hawks and Suns have each had pick-and-roll handlers finish more than 20% of their possessions, up from the regular season and a substantial part of their attack. Given the personnel on these squads and the amount of pick-and-roll they run, this makes sense. These are not the most efficient possessions typically, though Atlanta has managed to post 0.98 points per possession in the postseason. Phoenix is at 0.84 points per possession.

For the Hawks the pick-and-roll is of course the Trae Young show, and the young star has finished a preposterous 17.2 possessions per game as the ball handler. He has scored a respectable 1.02 points per possession, ok but not great overall offense but good for this play type and adequate in the half court. He is using about three more pick-and-roll ball handler possessions per game than in the regular season and scoring at a slightly higher rate. The Bucks’ defense is typically very concerned with stopping the ball handler from getting all the way to the rim and stopping the lob, so Young may get many floaters off the pick-and-roll in this series.

The Suns’ lower 0.84 points per possession on this play type surprised us as they posted almost 1 point per possession in the regular season and their offense has been very strong in the first two rounds. One possible explanation is that perhaps some offense generated from the pick-and-roll is being counted as an iso. There are grey areas in the classification of this type of data; this could also perhaps partially explain the Suns’ high isolation efficiency.

Spotups Important For All Four Conference Finalists

Spotup possessions are a big part of each of the remaining team’s arsenals. The Clippers, Suns, and Bucks have this as their most used play type in the playoffs and the Hawks have it as a close second. 

The high powered Clipper attack led all teams in regular season spotup efficiency at 1.24 points per possession, and in the playoffs they have become even more efficient. They posted 1.3 points per possession through the first two rounds. So many members of their roster are all hot at the same time; Reggie Jackson, Paul George, Terrance Mann, and Luke Kennard are over 1.4 points per possession (this is including the first two contests against Phoenix). If they want to keep their postseason run going with Leonard, they are going to have to keep setting up good looks and knocking down shots.

After a poor series of outside shooting against the Nets, the Bucks are down to 0.97 points per possession on spotups in the postseason, below their regular mark of 1.1 points per possession. Their supporting players are relied upon to make use of the defensive attention occupied by actions from Antetekounmpo and Middleton; they need to generate better offense on their opportunities off of the catch. 

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