The NBA playoffs offer many things. While the stars and drama serve up the sizzle, the substance, however, is the game-to-game battle of adjustments.
Scouting reports and gameplans become scripture in the postseason. They are blueprints to strengths, but more importantly, limitations that can be exploited. In each series, teams and players alike are plopped onto petri dishes, magnified and have their flaws presented to a national audience.
More often than not, the teams that can best take advantage of the opposition’s weaknesses are often the ones who come out on top.
There are multiple reasons as to why the Lakers currently hold a 2-1 advantage over the Memphis Grizzlies, but one of the biggest x-factors has been the play of Rui Hachimura and his ability to serve as a gameplan exploiter and buster.
The 25-year-old has erupted on offense thus far in the series, averaging 21.7 points on otherworldly 66.7% shooting from the field and 75% from behind the arc.
Hachimura’s numbers while impressive, have been doubly important when viewed within the context in which they’ve been conceived.
Like every team has done against the LeBron James and Anthony Davis era of Lakers’ basketball, Memphis has attempted to clog the paint, send extra help, and force the team’s supporting players to beat them through the first three games.
Hachimura has obliged and thrived in the opportunity. Let’s take a look at how he’s done it.
When attempting to figure out the root of a player’s success, it is important to first highlight what the defense is doing and are trying to accomplish.
For example, notice where the Grizzlies’ defenders are slotted against this empty corner pick-and-roll between D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Davis. Santi Aldama, in particular, shows help at the “nail” position of the floor (free-throw line), leaving Hachimura to do so.
Establishing strong nail position allows the defense to deter traction toward the paint, and in theory still be able to recover to shooters. The more aggressive the show, like Aldama does in the play above, is often a sign of the level of respect the defense has for a shooter.
Collectively, the Lakers haven't burned the Grizzlies from the outside enough to drastically change their overzealous nail help, but Hachimura has from an individual standpoint.
“That was our game plan going in — make him hit shots and he did,” Desmond Bane said following Hachimura’s five threes in Game 1. “Tip your cap. It’s probably the best game he’s had in his career. It’s a seven-game series. Let’s see if he can do it again.”
As potent Hachimura has been with his 3-ball, like Bane stated, it’s come by design. According to the league’s tracking data, 11 of Hachimura’s 12 attempts from behind the arc in the series have been classified as either open or wide-open. He has made 9 of them.
Hachimura is a career 34.7% shooter from behind the arc, which is passable on face value. But when accounting for volume, he is averaging less than one make per game through his first four seasons in the NBA.
In this series, however, Hachimura is not only averaging three makes per game, but is taking four a contest (he’s never attempted more than three in a season).
“I’ve been watching with coach Phil (Handy),” Hachimura told reporters after Game 1. “He always told me those are going to be the practice shots for me because the way they guard, they’re going to be in the paint so I’ve got to be ready to shoot those types of shots...all those shots just came to me and I was confident to shoot the shot.”
Following Hachimura’s hot start to the series, the Grizzlies have already expectantly adjusted. While still cheating off when appropriate, the defense is beginning to keep closer tabs on the forward in the form of harder closeouts.
Despite his aforementioned tepid outside shooting in his career, attacking closeouts has been an important staple of Hachimura’s game, thanks to his physical and skill makeup.
Equipped with a sturdy frame and light feet, Hachimura has the ability to put the ball on the floor and take it all the way to the cup against a compromised defense. When that gets shut off, the former lottery pick then turns to perhaps his most reliable tool in his arsenal — the midrange jumper.
Hachimura shot a blistering 54% on his long 2’s with the Lakers in the regular season according to Cleaning the Glass, and canned half of his one-dribble non 3-point attempts.
Making both the open shot and attacking closeouts is an important dual skillset for a non “James and Davis” Laker to possess.
The defense will naturally gravitate toward those two in the half court, so having another player who can both exploit that attention — and have the confidence to do so — is when advantages begin sprouting up across the hardwood. And advantage creation is as good as gold in the playoffs.
“Since I got here, this team, they really believe in me,” Hachimura said. “They gave me all the green light to shoot all those shots because they told me I’m a good shooter.”
That internal and external confidence in Hachimura also heavily factored into combatting the Grizzlies’ alteration to their defensive gameplan in Game 2.
After getting burned with their over help on defense in the first game, Memphis effectively slogged down the Lakers’ offense in Game 2 by switching and then sending late help in the post.
While switching allows for more fluidity in defending screen actions and sealing off the holes typically created when sending extra bodies toward a singular player, it conversely also creates mismatches.
At 6’8 and 220-plus, Hachimura is a natural switch-beater. He’s a tank on the block, has the ability to shoot over the top, and can turn the corner without barreling into smaller defenders to do so.
Stymied in the first half of Game 2 against the Grizzlies’ off-speed pitch, the Lakers’ made a run behind Hachimura’s ability to serve as a release valve. With the late help sent toward James and Davis, the Lakers opted to scour the Hachimura mismatch in the half court.
Whether it was utilizing him as the one within Darvin Ham’s four-out-one-in alignment behind high-low action from Davis or simply isolating him, Hachimura was — and has been — aggressive whenever he’s gotten one of the Grizzlies’ smalls on him.
With only three games played, this series is far from over. Adjustments are coming from both sides ahead of a pivotal Game 4 on Monday night.
Hachimura’s shooting will obviously regress to the mean, and it will be up to others to then pick up where he left off. But until that happens, it cannot be overstated how essential he’s been in giving the Lakers the slight edge they currently have.
Not solely because of the makes or highlights, but by being the counter to the counter. The rock, paper and scissors to whatever the Grizzlies have thrown the Lakers’ way.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.