We’ve all heard the saying before. The NBA Playoffs are about adjustments. Some of those adjustments take place between games. You can bet the coaching staffs for the 76ers and Mavericks were searching for answers on Thursday after falling behind 2-0 in their respective series.
But what about the ones that are happening in real time with the clock still ticking?
In the first round, the Nets dusted off Blake Griffin after halftime of Game 3 in a desperate attempt to save their season, but it wasn’t enough. The Jazz tried to hide their immobile centers on low-usage wings. And in a Game 5 thriller between the Timberwolves and Grizzlies, Taylor Jenkins broke out a small-ball lineup to close that he’d avoided playing for most of the season.
Fans probably assume that most adjustments come at halftime. Some do, but not all. Any stoppage in the game can serve as an opportunity to tinker with a scheme. Mo Dakhil, a former video coordinator for the Clippers, Spurs and Australian men’s basketball team, explained how the process works.
“You can see coaches [calling for adjustments] after free throws, making hand signals to switch pick-and-rolls. You can do it in timeouts, in the moments,” Dakhil said. “When I was in San Antonio, we were constantly changing our pick-and-roll coverages throughout the entire game.”
Those smaller time windows do present challenges, though. The adjustments have to be simple and direct.
“The important thing is making sure the message gets across, particularly on defense,” Dakhil said. “All five guys have to be on the same page. If four guys are playing zone and one is playing man, you’re screwed.”
Halftime is a bigger 15-minute window, which allows for a little more instruction. But the format is very similar to what happens at a timeout.
“It’s almost like an extended timeout,” Dakhil said. “The start of each timeout and halftime, the coaches huddle up, then talk to the players. [Halftime] is just in a bigger room. You’re doing it in the locker room now.”
Coaches plan what to address at halftime throughout the first half. As plays happen throughout the game, they will tell members of their staff to tag them to watch later.
“We would constantly have a running tally [of plays],” Dakhil said. “The coaches would come in and look at those clips for a halftime edit. Some they’d show to the team, some they’d say, ‘No, let’s take that out.'”
Once halftime starts, coaches usually meet together for the first few minutes to go over what to discuss. There’s only enough time to present three or four clips. Coaches have only six or seven minutes total to talk to the team before players have to get back on the court to warm up.
Those initial few minutes of planning also give the head coach a chance to see what really happened on the floor during the first half. Occasionally, coaches can be mistaken on what they saw in real time.
“In the moment, the coach might blame one guy for not making a rotation, not knowing that it wasn’t his rotation, or he actually did make the rotation and then this happened. [The plays] happen so quickly,” Dakhil said.
Steve Jones, a former assistant coach with the Nets and video coordinator for the Grizzlies, agreed.
“[Coaches are initially wrong] a few times. Not a ton, but there are circumstances where a play may seem like something, and it really wasn’t that. As a video coordinator, that’s your worst nightmare,” Jones said.
When the head coach runs through all of the film, he or she will quickly decide what to focus on. It could be an adjustment, or it could be an emphasis on implementing the current game plan more effectively. Dakhil gave some examples of halftime adjustments that he’d seen.
“It can be as little as, ‘Hey, we’re not doing what we said we were going to do.’ [Halftime’s] a good time to reinforce things. Like this is the perfect example of what we do, how we want to defend something, how we want to attack,” Dakhil said. “It could also be as simple as a rotation change or making the adjustment of, ‘Hey, we’re not going to double-team.'”
“The best halftimes are when the players figure it out,” Jones said. “They lead the charge. When the players see it, and they start talking about it, they discuss it, that’s when things really shift. That’s the secret sauce in the league. The players have to believe and take charge.”
These small adjustments may seem trivial, but they can completely change the course of a game.
“You see it all the time, whether it’s a lineup change, a scheme change, a matchup change. Something will throw somebody out of whack,” Jones said.
Dakhil gave an example of a halftime adjustment that swung a series.
“A while back, Miami-Philadelphia playoff series, I think it was in the first round. Brett Brown threw in Ersan Ilyasova to spread the floor,” Dakhil said. “It completely took advantage of the Heat and opened up the court for the rest of the series.”
Jones had another more recent example in mind.
“A big example was the play-in game with the Clippers and the Pelicans. The Clippers realized, ‘OK, we have to go small.’ They started the second half small,” Jones said. “They went on that [26-6] run and then ran out of gas when New Orleans said, ‘Fine, we’ll go small too.'”
Adjustments can be vital, but it’s also important to understand their limitations.
“The irritating part to me is when the adjustment gets conflated with the results, as if that adjustment would have changed the entire game,” Jones said. “That’s not always a guarantee. At some point, you run out of adjustments.”
Jones pulled on his own experience to demonstrate the limitations of schematic changes.
“My example is always the Grizzlies-Thunder series in 2014. We had a great game plan against [Kevin Durant], really bothering him. He wasn’t hitting the shots he normally makes,” Jones said. “We were physical with him, taking away his drives, denying him, contesting everything.
“And then Reggie Jackson shows up to the party. That’s the thing, there’s no adjustment for that, because the game plan is designed to make someone else do it.”
Fans and analysts are constantly brainstorming the magic adjustment that will turn the tide for a team. And sometimes, those do work. But sometimes, there’s nothing you can do to stop a more talented team.
“There’s only so many adjustments to make before you have to rely on doing what you do well,” Jones said. “Or you go home.”