Basketball is all about scoring more than your opponent, and the best way to do this is by getting better shots than your opponent. An crucial part to offensive efficiency is shot selection. Taking the right shots will improve the chance of making more baskets and winning games. The best shots can vary by team, but some are universally better. For example, shots at the rim have the greatest expected value per attempt followed by corner 3-pointers, while mid-range shots often have the lowest payoff.
The game changes, however, in the Playoffs. With four to seven games against a single opponent, defenses place a greater emphasis on game-planning and taking away their opponents’ best shots. Shot selection changes in the playoffs, and this can be advantageous to certain teams.
In the rest of the post, I have broken up shot zones into six categories: restricted area shots, paint (non-restricted area) shots, midrange shots, corner 3-point attempts, above the break 3-point attempts, and free throws. The first five categories are shown on the shot map below (not the best way of doing this, but it gets the point across), and free throws include shot opportunities that ended by being fouled and going to the free throw line.
Which Shots do Teams Take the Most?
Before analyzing how shot selection changes in the Playoffs, it is important to know what shot distributions look like in the regular season. The shot distributions of NBA teams in the regular season from 2015 to 2022 are shown below.
From the graph above, one can see that shots in the restricted area have been the most common from 2015 to 2021, but above break 3-point attempts overtook them as the most common shot in 2022. Additionally, one can see that teams have been going away from shooting lots of midrange shots, opting for more above break 3-point attempts, which have a similar probability of being made but are worth more points, making them better shots. But how does shot selection look in the Playoffs?
It can be observed that shot distributions in the Playoffs have been similar to the regular season. However, there are some interesting trends that are unique to the Playoffs. The share of shots in the restricted area has been steadily decreasing since 2018. In contrast, the share of shots in the paint but not the restricted area has been increasing. It is possible that defenses are trying to take away the offense’s most efficient shot in the Playoffs by preventing shots very close to the rim and making them a little farther away. As shown by the graph below, shots in the restricted area have the greatest field goal percentage (not counting free throws), and it’s not even close. In addition, the actual field goal percentage by shot location doesn’t seem to change in the Playoffs; rather, the reason that offensive efficiency is lower in the Playoffs is that offenses are forced to take lower percentage shot attempts.
It was observed previously that the share of shot attempts in the restricted area was declining in the Playoffs while the share of shots in the paint (non-restricted area) has been increasing. Shots in the restricted area have much greater value to the offense than shots in the paint (non-restricted area), as teams shoot over 60% in the restricted area but just about 40% in the latter portion of the paint. Although this may be surprising at first, it does make sense. Shots in the restricted area often include dunks and easier layups while shots in the back half of the paint usually consist of runners, floaters, or short jumpers.
The graph above gives a better look at how shot selection changes in the Playoffs. It seems like defenses are limiting the amount of shots opponents get in the restricted area. However, if we are looking at the data from 2015-2022, we don’t see a stark increase in paint shots in the Playoffs. Instead, when looking over the entire sample, the shots that the defense prevents in the restricted area seem to be allocated almost evenly between above break 3’s, corner 3’s, free throws, and paint (non-restricted area) shots.
So Which Shots are being Taken More in the Playoffs?
The reason that paint shots had only a small increase over the entire sample is that the rate of non-restricted area paint shot attempts has only been increasing for the past few seasons. If we look at just the data from the 2022 regular season and playoffs, we find that there is a larger decrease in restricted area shot attempts. Additionally, it looks like the shots lost in the restricted area are allocated mostly to non-restricted area paint shots, but also somewhat to all the other shot regions.
However, if we dig deeper, we can see that there are some outliers skewing the data. The plot below shows how teams changed their shot selection when opponents limited their attempts in the restricted area. It includes teams that saw a moderate or large decrease in the share of restricted area shots in the Playoffs. This is a violin plot, so it displays the distributions of the value on the y-axis for each level on the x-axis. One can see that none of the distributions are extremely far off from each other, so teams should be able to make up for restricted area shot attempts in a variety of ways, not just by shooting more in the paint.
Observing the graph above, one feature that stands out is the very long tail on the distribution of increase in shot frequency for paint (non-restricted area) shot attempts. This means that most teams which saw a decrease in restricted area field goal attempts in the Playoffs saw a moderate increase in paint (non-restricted area) shots, but a small number of teams saw very large increases in paint shots. These outliers skew the data and make it seem like the share of paint attempts is increasing by a lot more than it really is for most teams. In fact, an outliers in the increase of paint shot attempts included the Warriors in the 2022 postseason.
Note: AB3 = Above the Break 3; CN3 = Corner 3; FT = Free Throw; MR = Mid-Range; PT = Paint (Non-Restricted Area); RA = Restricted Area
The Warriors saw an increase of 8% for shots in the paint (non-restricted area) in last year’s Playoffs. About 14% of their shot opportunities came from this area in the regular season, but it shot up to 22% in the Playoffs. This contrasts to the reduction in shot attempts from the restricted area. The Warriors responded to opponents taking away shots in the restricted area by taking more shots in the latter portion of the paint, including floaters, runners, and short jumpers. But looking at another team’s change is shot distribution can show how the situation can be different.
One can look at another example to see the different ways teams deal with opponents taking away restricted area shots. The Dallas Mavericks’ share of shot attempts from the restricted area fell from 22% in the regular season to 15% in the Playoffs. However, while their paint attempts increased, they also saw increases in shots from 3-point range and from the free throw line (as midrange attempts also went down). It can be concluded that teams can overcome a reduction in restricted area shots with a variety of changes.
Further evidence of the fact that restricted area attempts go down in the Playoffs can be seen by looking at how shots increased and decreased from the regular season to the Playoffs for each team. The graph below shows the proportion of teams that saw an increase or decrease of shots from each zone in the Playoffs.
About 70% of teams that advanced to the conference semi-finals or further saw a decrease in their share of shooting opportunities at the rim. No other shot zone saw nearly as close as a decrease. In contrast, we see three zones with a large proportion of teams that saw an increase: paint (non-restricted area) shots, free throws, and above the break 3-point shots. This means teams can change their shot selection in several ways in the Playoffs, but a decrease in shots at the rim is very frequent.
Why does this Matter?
These findings reveal that versatility is key during the Playoffs. A team that heavily relies on getting high value shots at the rim is unlikely to be able to continue that strategy in the Playoffs. Opponents will be able to limit shots at the rim, so teams need to have the option of scoring from other spots on the court, whether its the back of the paint, the midrange, or from the perimeter.
Therefore, players that can score from everywhere are incredibly valuable in the Playoffs. Since the Playoffs consist of 7-game series, each team should be able to limit at least some of the opposing offense’s primary methods of scoring (since there is lots of gameplanning). To overcome this, it is important to be able to score in several ways. If a defense is playing lots of drop coverage and protecting the rim, there will be shots from the midrange and floaters from the back of the paint available. Players like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Devin Booker, Luka Doncic, and Jayson Tatum are just some of the athletes that can score from pretty much any spot in the halfcourt and are super valuable to their teams’ offenses in the Playoffs. Its no surprise that their teams have had Playoff success before.
One way to get a look at which teams’ offense are in the best shape is to see their reliance on shots at the rim and their efficiency on shots away from the rim. This are shown below, with the x-axis representing the proportion of shooting opportunities from the restricted area this season while the y-axis displays the true shooting percentage on non-restricted area shots. The teams towards the right rely more heavily on shots at the rim, while the teams on the left don’t rely on shots at the rim as much. Teams located towards the top of the graph are efficient outside of the restricted area, while those towards the bottom are less so. Therefore, the best spot to be on the graph is the top left, while the worst spot is the bottom right. (Note: only teams with at least a 25% chance of making the playoffs according to FiveThirtyEight’s NBA predictions as of March 27th are shown)
The teams that can shoot efficiently away from the rim and have a low reliance on shots at the rim are the Warriors and the Mavericks (also the Nets, but that may be because this includes data from before the KD + Kyrie trades). Both of these teams should not have offensive difficulties in the Playoffs as they can easily overcome a scenario where opponents try to limit shots at the rim. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Andrew Wiggins are all efficient across multiple zones, shooting well from the back of the paint, the midrange, and from 3-point range. Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving give the Mavericks offensive versatility as both are comfortable creating their own shot and shooting from anywhere in the halfcourt. The 76ers, Kings, and Celtics are also well positioned offensively for the Playoffs as they can score away from the rim (The Kings have the 2nd best paint efficient, the 76ers have the best midrange efficiency, and the Celtics are at least average in every category).
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies, Raptors, Cavs, and Lakers lack as much offensive versatility. The Grizzlies have one of the lowest true shooting percentages away from the rim in the NBA. While Desmond Bane can score from anywhere, star point guard Ja Morant has a key weakness: above the break 3’s. Many above the break 3-point attempts are self-created shots, and Morant shoots just 31% from this range. Therefore, opposing defenses could go under screens and clog the paint against Morant to limit him. Of course, Morant is a great player so he may still be able to get to his spots, but nonetheless the weakness gives the defense an area to target. In addition, the Grizzlies as a team are bad from the midrange and not great from 3, so if a defense can shut down the paint the Grizzlies offense is stuck.
The Raptors will have a tough time in the Playoffs (if they even make it) as they rank in the bottom 5 in efficiency from the paint (non-restricted area), midrange, above break 3’s, and corner 3’s. The Cavs are highly dependent on Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland, so if anything happens to either one of them, their ability to create shots will be severely limited. The acquisition of D’Angelo Russell combined with the return of LeBron James should make things easier for the Lakers in the Playoffs, but their shooting issues will likely limit them in the Playoffs as they have been a low efficiency team in the midrange and from 3-point range in the Playoffs.
It’s crucial to have shooting versatility in the Playoffs. Often times, offenses get fewer looks at the rim, which are the best value shots, during the postseason. Therefore, it is important to be able to score from other areas on the floor, like the back of the paint, the midrange, or from deep. The Warriors and Mavericks have a low reliance on shots from the restricted area and are efficient away from the rim, so they will have an offensive advantage in the Playoffs. Other offenses that are efficient away from the rim like the Celtics, Kings, and 76ers should also be well-suited for the Playoffs. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies, Raptors, Cavaliers, and Lakers need to overcome their shooting weaknesses to be able to succeed in the Playoffs. Shot selection changes in the Playoffs, and teams need to have the personnel and ability to score in a variety of ways.
See the code used to make the graphs here: https://github.com/AyushBatra15/Playoff-Shot-Selection/tree/main