Elite Guards 101: Playoff Edition

I’ve heard your cries, people. We’re back in the film room for another Elite 101 session, but this time we’re going to focus on playoff basketball. The 2016 NBA playoffs saw some incredible guard play, and I’m going to highlight five guys in particular in this in-depth breakdown.

Two things to get out of the way …

1. This is not a Top 5 list. If you don’t see your favorite player on here, it’s probably because I already covered him in  or . Or it might be because I haven’t seen enough of him lately.

2. What I love about this list is how different all five guys are. One thing I love about guards in this league is that you can be a 5-foot-9 pit bull or a methodical 6-foot-7 jump-shooter, and still succeed in your own way. These guys have figured out the best ways to score within their skill set. I’m going to try to show you how they do it.

First up, we have a guy who I recently had to battle night-in, night-out.

Klay Thompson
The first thing about Klay is that he moves really well off the ball. He doesn’t dribble a lot, but he moves efficiently and puts himself in great positions to catch-and-shoot. I’d rank Klay and J.J. Reddick as the top two scorers in the NBA without dribbling. Both guys have mastered off-ball movement and the ability to find open areas while using screens and relocating off the bounce.

Klay is hunting shots at all times, and he’s a master of getting defensive switches. Why is a defensive switch a problem against Klay? Because he only needs a half-second of confusion to rise up and get his shot off. On any given possession, he might run through multiple screens until he gets to his desired spot on the floor. This puts defenders in a tough position, because they have to be mentally engaged at all times, not just when Klay has the ball in his hands.

How much time does he need to exploit a defender? Let’s watch. (Note: first two clips aren’t from the playoffs because I want to show a specific point).

Here, Klay calls for the screen with his right hand. The defender kind of relaxes for a split second, anticipating the pick coming. So what does Klay do? He takes advantage of that momentary lapse and pulls up. His release is so quick that the defender doesn’t have a chance.

Watch that clip again and notice Klay’s eyes. He sells it so well because he’s not looking at the hoop until he’s already in the air.

Now let’s zoom in a little closer and look at his movement off the ball. Watch him at the bottom of the screen here.

Three things to notice:

  1. Klay uses DeMarcus Cousins as an inadvertent screen to break away from his defender.

2. Then he uses Draymond as a second screen, causing his defender to lose another half-step trying to get around him. None of this is planned. Klay’s vision allows him to use defenders’ bodies as natural screens.

3.Despite all that movement, this is the NBA, so the shot is still contested. Klay catches and shoots all in one smooth motion.

No hesitation. Whap. That’s confidence and reps right there. Klay doesn’t even have to look at the basket before he elevates because he’s practiced turning and shooting from that spot thousands of times.

One big point I want everyone to understand: The reason it’s so tough to guard a guy like Klay, especially in a playoff series over multiple games, is because you have to expend so much energy on the defensive end. You’re constantly moving, so even if you play great D and freeze him out for a possession, you’re running back down on offense a little more gassed than if you were guarding a player who stands in the corner or over-dribbles.

Remember, this offense/defense energy formula applies to Klay, too. That’s what’s so impressive about him. He’s often guarding the best player on the other team. He’s given the toughest assignment and is still able to carry the load offensively.

A lot of people will forget this, just because the Warriors didn’t win the title, but Klay had 41 points on the road in Game 6 against OKC. Forty-one on the road. In the playoffs. With 11 three-pointers.

That’s impressive, because your depth-perception is different in every building. The distance between the seats and the hoop is different. Even the lighting is different. Some buildings focus all the light on the floor and black out the crowd, like Brooklyn. Some buildings light up the whole place, like OKC. It creates a different spacial perception. Guys like Klay will get their reps in the night before and block all that stuff out, but it’s not easy. Only the best shooters can be that efficient in hostile territory.

Russell Westbrook
Now let’s talk about a guy who’s a mirror opposite of Klay. Russ is a primary ball handler who scores most of his points off the bounce. He’s a physical specimen — a freak in terms of athleticism. But he’s also got the most aggressive mentality in the league. He’s a dog. He’s always in attack mode. Defending Klay is kind of like running uphill. Defending Russ is like standing still at the bottom of a hill while Russ is barrelling down the hill at 90 miles-an-hour.

Russ gets the defense on their heels in all kinds of ways. His ability to change directions and jump is unlike anything the NBA has ever seen.

Let’s take a look at this nasty euro-step. Watch how he freezes Festus here. (Sorry Festus, we weren’t teammates during this trying time.)

And that’s just in the half court. That’s what you’re getting if you manage to slow him down. As soon as Russ gets out in transition, it’s curtains. Watch how many dribbles he takes here. Count them. He picks the ball up at his own foul line.

Four dribbles. Two explosive steps. Finishes at the rim through three defenders.

Now let me show you why his aggressiveness breaks down defenses. This next clip is from a few possessions later. It’s the same scenario: Four dribbles in transition, then two explosive steps to the basket. But watch what happens now.

Russ forces the defense to collapse on him. Klay saw what happened last time, so he jumps down to help. Russ sees this and dishes it to a wide open KD for the finish.

He’s always putting the onus on the defense. You know he’s coming to the paint, but he’s going to force you to react.

He’s so effective from mid range because of his ability to elevate over defenders. It doesn’t matter how tight you’re playing him. He knows he can pull up and jump right over you. He loves doing a little hesitation move to put the defender on his heels, then he hops right into his pull-up.

Right here, he sells the drive hard enough to put Livingston on his back foot, then he pulls up and elevates.

That’s a Melo special. Watch it again and notice how explosive he is. Both of his feet actually leave the ground on the “hesi” and he bunny-hops into his jumper. Livingston contests the shot, but it’s too late, because Russ is in rhythm. It’s good defense, but it’s a better shot.

The lesson here is, if Russ gets to see the rim, it’s already too late.

DeMar DeRozan
The midrange monster. One thing you’ll notice about DeMar is that he’s got a slight lean when he shoots his jumper. When you grow up in a place like Compton, you play a lot of “33” and “21,” where it’s one-on-one-on-everybody-at-the-park. At least that’s what I played growing up in Canton, Ohio. So you have to develop ways to get your shot off over double and triple teams.

Another way DeMar gets space is with his pump-fake jumper. He’s got a really nice pump fake — slow and exaggerated. That might sound like a bad thing, but with a pump fake, you want your movements to be realistic. If you pump too quick, and it looks nothing like your regular release, then it’s a dead giveaway.

Depending on the situation, you need to have different tempos for your pump fake, and DeMar is really good at that.

In the post, DeMar likes to utilize the spin move. Watch this.

He backs J.R. down, spins away to create space, and even though the help defender comes down to contest the shot, it’s already too late. Rise up. Bang. Cash out.

Now, who does that remind you of?

It looks a lot like Mr. Kobe Bean Bryant, doesn’t it? DeMar is from Compton. Who do you think he grew up watching over and over? In order to hit that kind of turnaround, you need excellent footwork and body control. Pay attention to DeMar’s feet in the clip above. He’s off-balance in the air, and he kicks out his right leg to help steer his body a little bit.

That’s a great move. But it’s just one bucket. In order to really understand his game, we need to see how this sets up his next trip down to the post. Once again, he’s backing J.R. down. Last time, he spun toward the baseline for the turnaround jumper. J.R.’s got that in the back of his mind. So now …

DeMar spins and takes it right to the cup. Kobe used to have five or six moves he could interchange in the post. If you only have one, it’s not enough. You need your go-to moves, but it’s crucial to have counter-moves to really keep the defense off balance.

The thing that separates DeMar is that he’s not just a jump shooter. He has a really nice touch around the basket. He can put the ball on the floor and finish in traffic with an array of shots in the paint.

He makes it all look smooth and effortless.

Isaiah Thomas
I.T. is small in stature, but he uses it as an advantage by gaining leverage and attacking angles off the dribble. Russ is a dog. But Isaiah? He’s a pit bull.

He’ll go into the paint with reckless abandon. Nine times out of ten, he’s either going to finish or draw some contact. As a defender, I.T. can really frustrate you, because he’s constantly putting you in positions where you can get into foul trouble if you’re too aggressive. Watch how low he stays to the ground here, and his body control as he creates space for himself.

If he goes straight up with that, Horford’s blocking it. But he freezes him and finishes with the tough lefty off the glass.

You might be wondering how he even gets to the paint. He’s got a nice little Smitty move where he takes a hesitation dribble, freezes the defender with the right hand like he’s about to spin, and keeps on going to the baseline. Steve Smith used to do that move all the time, hence the “Smitty.”

Watch the Smitty to freeze the defender at the three-point line here. It’s all about the change-of-pace.

When you’re a 5-foot-9 guard, you need to be able to get shots off quick, and Isaiah does that by pulling up in transition and by taking shots from unusual positions. Let’s see how he deals with a bad pass here.

A lot of guys wouldn’t be able to get that off. Isaiah gathers it with one hand and instantly gets into his jumper. Two things to notice: Watch his footwork, and watch him talking to his man at the end. Talk to him, Isaiah.

When he can’t use the art of surprise, he relies on his change of pace. Let’s see how he handles the end of the shot clock here. He uses the same two-step hesi pullup jumper as Russell Westbrook. Again, watch his feet. He’s got the same bounce as Russ.

Real recognize real, and I.T. is a ridiculously good and effective player.

Kyrie Irving
I have to do it. I talked about Kyrie in my first Elite 101 post, but I want to do a brief Round 2 since Uncle Drew just helped lead the Cavs to a title and then followed that up with a gold medal in the Olympics.

Guess what? He’s still a dog. His handle is crazy. He can get a shot whenever he wants. He’s got the 99 Overall layup stats.

What’s changed since my last post? I think his vision and basketball IQ have gotten better.

When I think about defending Kyrie, I think about respect. His shooting percentages were close to 50/40/90 as a 19-year-old rookie. When you come into this league with numbers like that, defenders have to respect your jumper. But his handle is so tight and his drive is so deadly that you have to respect his speed, too. So you’re in a real pick-your-poison situation when he’s got the ball in his hands.

When I hear certain analysts complain about shoot-first guards, especially the elite shoot-first guys like Russ and Kyrie, I just shake my head. The solution is always to double team these guys, right? O.K., let’s double him. Let’s see what happens. 

Kyrie knows where Kevin is going to be before he even makes the cut, and he buys enough room with one hard side-dribble to escape the trap. The pass is right in Kevin’s shot pocket so he can catch and raise without hesitation.

Great vision. Great pass. Easy bucket. That clip is from the same Game 5 where he scored 41 points, by the way.

The whole world saw Kyrie’s incredible ability to finish in traffic in the NBA Finals. He’s got such a great touch off the backboard. Watch him play bully ball here. He splits two defenders, then finishes with a spin move off the glass.

That’s good D. But it doesn’t matter. When games get tight in the playoffs, especially in the Finals, there’s no space. There’s no clean looks. That’s why you need a guy like Kyrie with the ability and confidence to finish in the middle of chaos.

Even when he slips, he regains control, spins and hits a fadeaway from a crazy angle. As a defender, that will crush your spirit.

Kyrie is the ultimate versatility weapon. He’s good in isos, he’s good in pick-and-rolls, he’s good in transition. He got game. He got a title, too. Respect.

That’s a wrap. Don’t miss Parts 1 and 2. Hit me up on Twitter @CJMcCollum with more suggestions, and I might be back with another edition in the future.