Isolation Scoring in the Playoffs

By Andrew Lawlor

Some of the most iconic NBA playoff moments in history have come via isolation. Michael Jordan’s last shot against the Utah Jazz. Kyrie Irving’s clutch three-pointer against the Warriors. Damian Lillard’s game-winner last year over Paul George. Luka Doncic’s step back against the Clippers this year. When all the cards are down, teams often rely on isolation. That’s where the magic happens.

Isolation scoring often goes up in the playoffs as defenses tighten and make it harder to get easy baskets out of other actions. Often, it is the best bet for an offense to put the ball in the hands of its most talented scorer and let them attack. In the age of social distancing, it is fitting that isolation scoring has taken a front seat during the NBA playoffs. In the 2020 playoffs, teams are averaging around 10.7 isolation possessions per game, up from 7.2 per game in the regular season, according to NBA.com.

To no one’s surprise, the Houston Rockets are driving this increase in isolations. They led the league in isolations during the regular season with an astronomical 22.6 per game, more than double the second-place Blazers. James Harden, with his patented step-back three-pointer, and Russell Westbrook ranked first and second in the league in isolations per game—Harden alone had 14.1, more than every other team.

In the playoffs, the Rockets have actually decreased their isolations a bit, to 17.8 per game (still second-most in the league), likely due to Westbrook’s absence in the first four games of the series. Harden is isolating on 12.0 possessions per game, still the most in the league, but they do not have a third frequent isolator.

Houston’s switch-everything defense also leads to increased isolation opportunities for opposing offenses, since it prevents openings on off-ball screens. In fact, their current opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder, lead the playoffs in isolations, after they more than doubled their isolation usage from 9.6 per game to 20.4 per game.

But it is not just the Rockets-Thunder series that has featured heavy usage of isolations. The Indiana Pacers (16.3), Los Angeles Clippers (13.4), Portland Trail Blazers (12.7), Toronto Raptors (12.0), and Utah Jazz (10.8) are all also isolating over 10 times per game.

Many of the most prolific isolators have been the usual suspects. James Harden is by far the most frequent, and Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Chris Paul all show up on the list as well. But there are some lesser-known names that have been great as well.

Malcolm Brogdon was incredible on isolations in the playoffs. He ran 8.0 isolation plays per game, more than every other player but Harden, and scored 1.38 points per possession with an effective field goal percentage of 61.9%. Those are some insane numbers. The Pacers were still swept, but Brogdon is a bright spot going forward.

As isolations have increased, there has been more room for isolation defenders to shine. First and foremost among isolation defenders in the 2020 playoffs is Thunder rookie Luguentz Dort, who has drawn the unenviable assignment of defending Harden. A lot has been written about him in other spaces, and it is justified; he has defended the second-most isolations in the league (3.8 per game), and held opponents to 0.67 points per possession, an elite number. Alex Caruso has also been amazing against the Blazers, limiting them to 0.72 points per possession on 3.6 isolations defended per game. If Houston makes it through, the Lakers also have a stout option to put on Harden.

While teams are running a lot more isolations, there is no one play type they are running a lot less often. Teams are running slightly fewer pick-and-rolls, and they are seeing fewer opportunities from transition, cuts, handoffs, and screens. Defenses have cut down on easy baskets on all play types, and offenses have turned to isolations instead.

As the playoffs continue, isolation scoring is likely to swing several playoff series. I am confident in many of the remaining teams’ ability to score in isolation scenarios, save for the Raptors. Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet were both good in the first round, but nobody on the roster has a long track record of isolation success. The Raptors have been very good in transition throughout the season, but if that gets taken away, they may struggle to score. Often, to win a tight playoff game, you need somebody who can go and get a bucket one-on-one, so teams without proven isolation scorers could struggle to advance deep into the postseason.

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