How do NBA teams prepare for the playoffs? – The Athletic

By Mo DakhilApr 11, 2024

With the NBA postseason approaching, I’ll pull back the curtains on playoff preparation and walk you through the process.

Game preparation during the NBA regular season is drastically different than in the playoffs. It’s impossible during the 82-game season to have a curated plan for each game.

With more time leading up to the playoffs, teams can go deeper into their game plan for the playoffs, but that requires a lot of prep.

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The postseason requires an all-hands-on-deck approach from the front office, analytics department, advanced scout team and the video crew.

During my time in the NBA with the LA Clippers and San Antonio Spurs, each team prepared differently with actual playoff books being created. These were not CliffsNotes but 100 or so pages of valuable information. Teams have transitioned to the digital world, so all this information is now available on tablets and other devices.

The delivery method has changed, but the content has not. A team’s depth chart, regular-season stats, season-series stats, personnel profiles, play-call sheets and sets that worked are all included.

In this opponent playoff preparation example, I will analyze the New York Knicks.

A team’s advance scout provides the play call in an Excel spreadsheet with the name and the action being run in that set. It also contains the frequency in which the play is run, the amount of success it had and a view of what defense was deployed.

Here’s an example of a Knicks play I diagramed with a made-up name. Most teams use FastDraw, which is a software tool that includes videos and notes.

Besides the play-call sheet, the scout provides information on player profiles. This is when the front office will contribute information, too.

The analytics department plays a significant role in this process. Besides the essential statistics, it contributes lineup data on the season series — the best lineups and when to play them.

The analytics team provides a breakdown of individual players. Besides the basic statistics, it includes advanced stats, shot charts and detailed play-type analysis: Player X likes to take a pull-up jumper on 58 percent of his drives to his left, and that same player rejects the ball screen on the right side of the floor 63 percent of the time.

An example of a player’s shot chart via FastScout.

The heavy lifting of the preparation comes from the video team. This is the central hub that makes playoff books. All the information flows to that group, which organizes, compiles and completes everything.

But the book is only part of playoff prep. Most teams create a massive video edit on their opponent to show in sessions. It could contain offense sets, out-of-bounds actions, what teams do following timeouts, after free throws and at the end of games.

Here’s a breakdown, starting with the offense: 

After that example, a defensive clip is provided. It shows what the team did defensively immediately after the offensive play. Did they press or play zone? How did they defend the pick-and-roll and the post?

Another component is the individual player video, which reinforces everything in the personnel section of the playoff book. Here’s an example of what I would include in Jalen Brunson’s personnel scout and edit:

• He’s a crafty ballhandler so be ready for spins, in-and-out dribbles and multiple crossovers in isolation.

• When he comes off ball screens, be aware of the pull-up, midrange jumpers. 

These examples are spread out over multiple video sessions, so players are not overwhelmed. The offense is accomplished on one day, defense the next and then personnel.

This type of opponent scouting takes about a week. Getting the playoff books organized and the video clips put together is taxing, and that is why it’s reserved for the playoffs. The regular-season schedule is too tight for this detailed preparation.

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Playoff prep is most challenging for the first round. Teams must prepare for a few different opponents because the playoff matchups might not be settled on the last day of the season.

For example, right now in the Western Conference, the only playoff series set is the Dallas Mavericks versus the LA Clippers in a No. 4-No. 5 matchup. The top three teams are preparing for No. 6 through No. 10.

The good news for video coordinators involved in the Play-In Tournament is that there is more time to prepare for the playoffs … unless your team is in the Play-In Tournament.

You can buy tickets to every NBA game here.

GO DEEPER

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(Photo of Jalen Brunson: Gary Dineen / NBAE via Getty Images) 

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Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men’s national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.

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