The most simple is when the query literally tells SQL Server that you don’t want to have all rows returned. Everyone knows the TOP clause, which is most commonly used for this. For ANSI portability, and because it adds a few options, you should also be aware of the FETCH and OFFSET modifiers to the ORDER BY clause, that have a similar functionality and are specifically designed to support paging. And there is of course the SET ROWCOUNT option, though I sincerely hope nobody actually uses that. All of these options literally tell SQL Server that we don’t want all results, only a part of them. The execution plan that would produce the entire set the fastest might not necessarily be the fastest way to get the few rows we actually want, so it’s a good thing that the optimizer has a way to come up with a different execution plan for these cases.
But there are plenty of other ways you might get a row goal, so check them out.