Playoff basketball presents a whole different challenge from the regular season. Players’ weaknesses are exposed, rotations are shortened and teams often have to search for new lineup combinations based on their specific matchup in a series.
Through four or five games of a series, most coaches have used all almost all of the lineup tricks and personnel adjustments that they have at their disposal. Using STATS’ proprietary lineup data, we analyzed the various lineups each team has used for at least ten possessions against their opponent so far in the conference semifinals and have come up with one key takeaway or suggestion based on that analysis. Of course, some of the numbers are the result of small sample sizes, but the takeaways still explain a lot of what has worked and what has not worked in the playoff crucible.
Houston Rockets – P.J. Tucker at center has been the key to success
In four regular season games against the Warriors, P.J. Tucker was never the center in a lineup that played at least 10 total possessions during the season series. But in this series, Tucker has been at center in three different frequently used lineups that also include James Harden, Chris Paul, and Eric Gordon. With those three on the court and Tucker at center, the Rockets have been unstoppable, posting an incredible 138.3 offensive rating. To put that in context, Golden State had the most efficient offense in the league this year with a 114.9 offensive rating.
The Rockets went extremely small down the stretch of Game 4, going with Austin Rivers as their fifth player during crunch time. Given how much the Warriors have killed the Rockets with Capela on the floor (he is -43 in four games), the Rockets may have to continue to go to this crazy small lineup if they want to win the series.
Golden State Warriors – It might be time to try Quinn Cook off the bench
The Warriors have not trusted their bench, especially their non-centers, to play significant minutes in this series. Their mistrust might be for good reason. McKinnie is inexperienced and Shaun Livingston has really struggled this season, particularly against the Rockets. Livingston was featured in seven different lineups that played at least 10 possessions against the Warriors during the regular season. All of those lineups had negative net ratings, and the Warriors really struggled to score, averaging just a 71.8 offensive rating in those minutes.
Cook, meanwhile, was part of some of the best lineups against the Rockets for the Warriors during the regular season. He may be young, but as a 40% three point shooter, Cook can provide an element of spacing that Livingston cannot. The Warriors are risking both injury and just general fatigue by playing their starters so much in this series, so Steve Kerr might consider using Cook as his first wing option off the bench.
Milwaukee Bucks – Use a Mirotic/Antetokounmpo frontcourt more often
The Bucks have only had two consistent lineups where these two play together, so of course the sample size is small even by playoff standards. However, in the 22 possessions with Mirotic and Giannis together on the floor along with George Hill, Khris Middleton, and another guard, the Bucks have a crazy efficient 193 offensive rating. More importantly, the concept of the lineup makes a lot of sense because it provides spacing on offense but also allows the Bucks to switch more on defense and guard the shooting centers or smaller lineups that they may see in the upcoming playoff rounds.
Boston Celtics – More Jaylen Brown, less Marcus Smart and Gordon Hayward
The difference between the Celtics performance when Jaylen Brown is on the floor and when he is off of it is striking. The Celtics have played 162 offensive possessions in this series with Brown and the other four most common starters from this season (Irving, Tatum Morris, and Horford). In those minutes, about as big of a sample size as you can hope for, the Celtics have a +14.7 net rating. The fact that they are down 3-1 despite that lineup playing so well just shows how bad the Celtics lineups that do not feature Brown have been.
Sub in Hayward for Brown with those same starters, and the net rating is -43. Hayward is also a part of every other negative lineup that has played at least ten possessions in the series. Marcus Smart is not a substitute for Brown either. He was in four of the five negative lineups that the Celtics played at least ten possessions against the Bucks in the regular season. Brown has been one of the Celtics best five players, and if they want to come back in this series, they need to play him more and minimize the roles of their other wings.
Denver Nuggets – Keep Using Torrey Craig
Starting in the Spurs series, the Nuggets put Craig in the starting lineup over Barton, and it has paid off. That group has played 254 possessions against the Blazers starters in this series and has a +15 net rating. Despite questions about how Craig’s offensive game could hold up in an offense-leaning series, the Nuggets have scored at an impressive clip with him on the floor. They have an offensive rating of 127 and have shot 37.5% on three-pointers, so he clearly has not gummed up the spacing as much as some people may have thought. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Keep playing Craig in that lineup.
Portland Trail Blazers – Try more Zach Collins
The Blazers have four lineups with substantial playing time that either have a positive or zero net rating versus the Nuggets. All four include Zach Collins. With Collins at either center or power forward, the Trail Blazers have a 127 offensive rating and a 101 defensive rating so far in the series. Without him on the floor, those numbers flip. He has gotten a lot of time against the Nuggets backup center, Mason Plumlee, and against two-big lineups featuring Plumlee and Jokic, but he also has a positive rating against just Jokic in limited minutes. With Kanter suffering from a shoulder injury, Portland should see if Collins can take on a larger role.
Philadelphia 76ers – Just don’t play your bench?
Even after the blowout loss in Game 5, the 76ers starters still have a +7.6 net rating in the 287 possessions that they have played together in this series. Unfortunately, they cannot play all 48 minutes of the game. Another unfortunate thing is that all of the 76ers best non-starter lineups against the Raptors in the regular season featured Landry Shamet and Mike Muscala, two players who are no longer on the team. James Ennis III has been the best of a slew of bad options, so the 76ers have to hope he can come through with their season on the line.
Toronto Raptors – Keep matching the starters vs. the 76ers Bench
The Raptors have just obliterated the 76ers when they have gotten their five starters on the floor against any lineups that feature one of Philly’s bench players. When the 76ers put a bench wing on the floor, the Raptors starters suffocate them on defense, giving up just a shade under 77 points per 100 possessions. If the 76ers take Embiid off the floor, the Raptors become unstoppable against the lineups with backup centers like Monroe and Boban. As long as the Raptors continue to stagger their starting lineup’s minutes to play against lineups with players from the 76ers bench, they should win the series.