In this day and age, it is difficult for any player (or group of players) to reinvent anything in the game of basketball. It's sort of like the dunk contest in that we've seen it all before.
That said, there are times that a perfect storm occurs and we get a combination of players who have the ability to do something special. When they are on the floor together, they show us the best of what is possible on a basketball court.
In Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, the Lakers have that sort of combination in relation to running the pick-and-roll. With Nash's ability to create off the dribble and either pass to the roll man or score for himself, combined with Howard's ability to roll to the rim and finish, they represent the zenith of what the pick-and-roll can be.
And it starts with Steve Nash when he has the ball in his hands. The ultra-creative floor general simply has a knack for creating the right play at the right time. Especially when he's looking to pass the ball.
Here, Nash sets up the action perfectly. He pauses to set up the screen and then waits an extra beat to ensure that he is able to occupy his man and the big-man defender who hedges to contain his drive. Once both defenders commit, Nash drops a perfect pocket bounce pass to a diving Marcin Gortat, who is able to slice to the rim and finish easily.
The beauty of this action is that Nash makes it look so easy. In reality, that's a very difficult pass that has to be delivered on time and on target for Gortat to not only make the catch, but to be able to finish against a defense that is primed to stop the action.
If making what looks to be a simple pass isn't enough, Nash can also make the spectacular play routinely.
In this play, Nash does two things very well before he even makes the pass. First, he ensures that he draws his man into the pick by changing directions and redirecting the action so he can break free from the initial defender. Then, he engages the big man to make him an active defender on the ball, which means he can no longer worry about the dive man at all.
Once Nash occupies the big, he deftly drops a bounce pass between his legs to the only spot where his teammate can make the catch and finish.
What makes Nash really special is that he's not just a passer out of the pick-and-roll. Oftentimes, he sets up the P&R to get his own shot and keep the defense honest.
This action shows how Nash can instantly recognize what the show man is doing and then instinctively go into attack mode. After coming off of the pick, Nash realizes that the hedge man is a bit too flat and that he can attack his outside shoulder to turn the corner. By turning on the jets, he slides right by Luis Scola and gets an easy lay-in before the defense can adjust.
He does more than attack the rim, though. Because Nash is such a good shooter, he can then use the threat of the drive to set up his jumper.
In setting up the P&R with Pau Gasol, Nash convinces the defender that he's looking to drive the ball. The first attempt doesn't yield anything positive, so he resets and goes at it again. On that second try, Nash takes a hard dribble away from the screen to imply he's going to drive, only to pull the ball back to give himself space.
Once the defender is wiped out of the play, Nash calmly pulls up and knocks down the three-pointer.
This is what makes Nash so deadly with the ball in his hands when running the P&R. He is, essentially, a triple threat to pass, drive to score or pull up to score. This puts the defense in the precarious position of having to defend every imaginable action. It leads to the D being spread so thin that it can't realistically take away everything.
Having Howard as a partner should only enhance the threat that Nash presents.
Howard is, by any measure, the best finisher in the game when running the pick-and-roll. He has the size and quickness to get into open spaces that make him a great target, while also possessing the athleticism and soft hands to make even the most difficult pass catchable. And then he finishes with ease at the basket.
Here, Howard simply sets up at the top of the key to set the pick and half-slips into the opening in the middle of the defense to make himself available. Jameer Nelson then throws him a crisp bounce pass that Howard gobbles up and instantly rises to finish at the basket. Not only does the defense not try to contest him at the rim, but it's not even in position to do so because of how quickly Howard darted open after the screen.
Howard not only uses quickness to slip screens, but also has the wide frame and power to knock defenders off the ball-handler to set up the action.
Look at how Howard, with a legal screen, creates space for Jameer Nelson to turn the corner and attack the big man hedging. Nelson then shows excellent patience and occupies Al Horford while Howard dives to the bucket. Once Dwight is in range, Nelson simply throws the ball in the vicinity of the rim and Howard finishes with ease.
And this is really the common theme with Howard: He's so athletic and has such a feel for timing and moving into open space that the potential for the highlight play is there every time he sets a screen. There are countless variations of Howard catching pocket passes and hammering home a dunk or soaring above the defense to throw down a sky-high lob pass.
For the Lakers, then, you can only imagine how this can (and likely will) play out. With Nash controlling the ball on a string and Howard setting screens to free him up (or slipping them to open himself up), there will be countless opportunities to make special plays every night.
This may not be the classic definition of redefining the play, but there is certainly an art to the pick-and-roll. And two masters will be collaborating to demonstrate it.
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