It has been a while since we last spoke, hasn’t it? We head into a new week fresh off of a holiday weekend (one in which we celebrate the greatness of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.) with much to review from last week. We’ll start with a brilliant inbounds play in Sacramento, and then we’ll send it over to Detroit and look at an awesome set the Bucks ran to open the game. Then, we go a mile high with Jamal Murray probing high ball-screens and threading the needle low. We break down how the Bulls blew a 22-point lead in losing fashion, and then wrap it up with Danny Green and Dwight Howard running pick-and-rolls.
Shall we dance?
Communication Is Key
Allowing fewer than 108 points per 100 possessions, the Pacers are generally a fine defensive team. But, even the good ones have slip-ups. Game speed and practice speed are two very different things. It’s a lot easier to rehearse than to go out on stage and perform. But, it is quite perplexing that the kill switch in Indiana’s defensive game plan didn’t entail locating Buddy Hield at all times in this game. Even in the confusion of this play, a reputed sniper like Hield should never be neglected:
At the same time, this execution and awareness by the Kings is tremendous. Luke Walton positions Richaun Holmes so that he can see both Hield and De’Aaron Fox opening up depending on what the defense does. Hield sets a simple down-screen to get Fox, the inbounding passer, moving on a baseline cut. Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo don’t communicate on the pick, and both chase Fox through the screen. All Hield has to do is step back for the open triple.
Simple and beautiful, and the Kings didn’t actually have to do anything special to get the open look.
Weaponizing Khris Middleton With Off-Ball Screens
If you can’t tell, I’m a sucker for simple actions. I adored this one from the Bucks as they cruise-controlled to victory over the Pistons.
Jrue Holiday runs the offense through the post. As the play unfolds, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez–two of the more massive players in the league–set up a staggered series of screens for a curling Middleton. Holiday just feeds Middleton from the post and it’s a creative catch-and-shoot opportunity stemming from off-ball movement.
The best part is the alternatives that present themselves should Detroit’s defense rush the shooter. If Delon Wright evacuates Holiday’s back to contest Middleton, the veteran point guard can dart to the rim on what would be a simple give-and-go. If no one rotates up to stop Giannis, he can cut to the rim and receive the feed from Middleton. If Griffin slides over to Giannis, Middleton can pump fake to draw Jerami Grant in the air and get fouled or he can shuttle the ball to Lopez for a triple. If Holiday’s man stays put and Griffin slides over to Giannis or Lopez, the play functions as a split screen in which Middleton just slides to the rim uninterrupted and finishes at the rim.
Clearly, the Bucks do not care that Middleton is connecting on less than 31% of his field goal attempts coming off screens, nor do they care that he scores on less than 29% of plays derived from his clearing screens. They are more than happy to depend on Middleton’s 47.5% connection rate on catch-and-shoot threes this season (the volume of just more than three attempts per game is suspect, however). That trust doesn’t pay dividends this time, but this play encapsulates Giannis’ ability to set brick-wall screens, Holiday’s ability as a passer, and Middleton’s gravity as a shooter.
Jamal Murray And The Art Of Probing And Lifting
At first, you might think, “Oh, an incredibly dynamic offensive big man and a speedy, prolific-shooting point guard, they must be unstoppable in the pick-and-roll!” Well, not quite. The Nuggets score .94 points per pick-and-roll ball-handler possession. That’s good for tenth best in the league right now. Still, that feels low for this team. They have athletic wings that have the mental fortitudes to instinctively move off-ball. They have one of the best passing bigs the game has ever seen. They have a slightly-below star-level point guard.
Some of it is attributable to the quality of screen Jokic sets. If the screen isn’t solid, the point guard’s back-side space is reduced as defenders converge, and making plays becomes more difficult. Some of it is attributable to the play developing further to the point where the Nuggets are scoring but it isn’t credited as a score stemming from the pick-and-roll ball-handler. The truly perplexing part is that the Nuggets are in the top ten in three-point percentage and in the better half of the league in both turnovers per game and free throws attempted per game. So, they shoot well, they take care of the ball, and they get to the line.
You would think they’d average more than .94 points per possession with the pick-and-roll ball-handler, but it’s also important to scale that to the rest of the league. While they’re tenth best in points per possession, they have the resources to be better than that. As you can imagine, Jamal Murray’s involvement in those downhill actions is hugely important to the Nuggets’ offense running efficiently. Watch how he probes and lifts in space to create a score out of nothing:
In this play, Isaiah Hartenstein sets a fine screen, clearing space for Murray to work on the right wing. The trouble comes when Golden State traps on the pick-and-roll. Murray has a window to feed Hartenstein at the free throw line as he dives to the rim, but he sees Eric Paschal lurking in help position by the restricted area. If he delivers the pass at the free throw line, he’s forcing Hartenstein to become a playmaker off of a short roll, and that isn’t something Murray is comfortable with quite yet. So, he probes his way into the lane in search of something else.
The genius of this play begins to develop. Murray’s tease of the middle of the lane forces Paschal to take a step closer to JaMychal Green, who is shooting better than 50% from downtown, as Murray is no longer on the weak side of the court. This creates a pocket of space for Hartenstein, except Kevon Looney lingers. Murray brilliantly takes a step backward to the free throw line to force Looney to lift up a bit in help. That opens up the window for Murray to feed Hartenstein, who is sent to the line for free throws.
I believe the kids would deem that ‘Galaxy Brain’?
Bulls Blow Lead, Youngster Style
In the modern NBA, there are two ways to really fudge up a big lead. They typically go hand-in-hand, although not necessarily related to one another. The first is laughably poor pick-and-roll defense. Poor communication as to what the defensive scheme is supposed to be can result in an unoccupied lane once the ball-handler clears the screen. Poor effort can rear its ugly head when a big drops to defend the rim but the on-ball defender is too lazy slumping through the screen, inviting the ball-handler to step into a rhythm jumper. If you want to get really cute when you muck it up, like the Bulls did, you can mismatch on defense to start plays and be completely out of sorts by the time the play unfolds:
The Bulls lead the league in points allowed per possession to pick-and-roll ball-handlers. On this play, you can see why. There’s no way 34-year-old Garrett Temple should be the on-ball man charged with slowing down Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. It’s also questionable, to put it nicely, that Thaddeus Young is showing what amounts to the world’s softest hedge on the ball-screen. This should’ve been a switch, if anything. But, the matchup of Temple on Gilgeous-Alexander should’ve never happened to begin with.
Bad teams always find ways to lose. The other way young teams blow leads is the dreaded turnover. The Bulls commit the second most turnovers in the league. The cursed part is that they come at the most unfortunate moments and in the most inexplicable of ways:
Now, Zach LaVine is averaging more than four turns per game and is rocking with a usage that leads his team by a country mile. It is well within the realm of imagination that the player who carries the heaviest workload commits the most turnovers. Maybe if he has a running mate that lifts that burden, LaVine is a bit more refreshed and doesn’t inexplicably lose this ball. Nonetheless, the budding star has repeatedly made comments about how his team doesn’t know how to win games. But, I’m not convinced those words aren’t a bit hypocritical.
Danny Green-Dwight Howard Pick-And-Rolls: Burn After Watching
We conclude this lovely adventure with a lemon pit on your collective tongues on a hot day. Quite the imagery, I know. But, this play is quite fowl. The Sixers’ .99 points per pick-and-roll ball-handler possession is fifth best in the league up to this point. They are running many more pick-and-rolls than they typically did under Brett Brown, and the frequency with which they run them is facing an upward trajectory under Rivers. That does not mean they should be flirting with any and every type of pick-and-roll:
Danny Green delivers a fine pass in front of Dwight Howard as he rolls to the rim. The problem is that this play essentially banks on the Grizzlies not knowing personnel. More than 60% of Green’s shots are attempted off of the catch. No one is that worried about him inflicting damage as a pull-up jump shooter. So, the Grizzlies back off and give him the space to prove himself. Green’s instinct is to hit Howard with a pocket pass to finish the possession. The problem is that Howard is essentially being asked to score a rhythm floater off of movement from just below the free throw line–something that he isn’t quite used to doing. This play might look better if it’s implemented as a snug (inside the arc, from the post) pick-and-roll. Maybe Howard is catching the ball closer to the basket where he’s more comfortable. Maybe Green feels more empowered to create something off the dribble. But, on this play, we get the above monstrosity. The good news is that it can only go up from there!
Featured Image: Mark J Terrill/Associated Press