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The One Strategy NBA Playoff Teams Are Addicted To

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The One Strategy NBA Playoff Teams Are Addicted To
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The NBA playoffs are extraordinary in many ways, for better or worse. You’ll see superhuman performances and glossy finishes, but beneath all the sheen and shine there’s a very basic element which successful teams are addicted to. It’s the thing that makes it all work: the screen.

The game slows down in the postseason, and when it slows down it becomes more of a half-court game. According to Synergy Sports (which looked at the production of various teams and is used for all the analysis in this article unless otherwise indicated), roughly half of all points scored out of the half-court stem from the screen.

There are essentially four ways to score off the screen.

  1. The ball handler can use the screen to get himself open and take the shot.
  2. The ball handler can pass it to the roll player in a pick-and-roll (down toward the basket) or a pick-and-pop (up by the elbow).
  3. A cutter can use the screen to get open for the catch-and-shoot.  
  4. A screen can set up a situation where one of the first three scenarios indirectly creates a shot opportunity for a scoring chance.

The teams that have advanced to the second round by and large have one thing in common—they all have great screen setters.

Players like Joakim Noah, Chris Andersen, Tyson Chandler, Roy Hibbert, Nick Collison, Tim Duncan, Marc Gasol and Carl Landry all help their teams win by setting great screens.

They may otherwise have different roles and abilities, but they all do that one thing well.

In today’s world of advanced stats, there’s no stat which tells the effectiveness of the screen. It’s time for there to be one, as often the difference between winning and losing is a well-placed and well-timed pick.

 

Freeing the Ball Handler

The first and most common way that players score off the screen is off the pick-and-roll, with the ball handler keeping the ball and getting a shot. Particularly when you have a ball handler who is quick and explosive, a pick can get him that fraction of a second he needs to blow past his defender, or simply give him that space he needs to put up the jump shot.

The pick needs to be set just so. By rule, it has to be set a step away from the defender and it cannot be moving. So the pick-setter’s goal is to set it as close to that step as possible, but to finish setting it before the step is completed.

He can even subtly cheat (ala Kevin Garnett), by sliding his hands to the hips so he can grab at shorts and shirts and give a slowing tug, or he can have that slight shifting of the feet that the ref can’t see because it’s hidden behind the defender. (Seriously if there were a stat for illegal screens gotten away with, Garnett would be the all-time leader, just as Stockton is the assist leader—and that’s a compliment, not a swipe).

The goal of a good solid screen is to maximize the time that the dribbler has away from his defender, so the angle matters too.

The screener wants to set his body and feet in such a way that he forces contact (without fouling) so that he slows down the defender and compels him to travel the greatest distance over or under the pick.

During Chicago's remarkable fourth quarter comeback against the Brooklyn Nets in Game 5, much attention was paid to Nate Robinson’s scoring outburst, but did you notice how many of those buckets came off of picks?

Watch the sequence below of the scores that Robinson had in his historic explosion which were off of the pick-and-roll, but rather than focusing on Robinson, train your eye on Noah (for the most part), and how he always places the perfect pick.

 

The Roll Man

For all the “Two and Half Men” jokes that Chris Bosh has taken since joining the Miami Heat, he is an extremely effective scorer as both a “roll “ man and a “pop” man.  He scores well off the pick at the rim and away from it. As such, he’s a big part of the reason the Heat keep winning, whether he gets the credit due or not.

The Miami Heat led the NBA in points per play when going to the roll man, averaging 1.21, and a large part of the reason for that is Bosh, with his 1.25.

The Heat are successful because other teams tend to help the dribbler’s defender (because really, who needs LeBron James running about willy-nilly, unguarded, with the ball) when they run the pick-and-roll, which—because of the double team—creates wide open lanes and/or shots for Bosh, who is adept at finding the right spot to be in.

Watch in the clip below as Bosh first rolls off his pick to get to the rim for the and-1, and then watch him step off the pick for the easy jumper. Notice how there really is no one on him in either case because his defender is helping.

Having James and Dwyane Wade on the team makes it stupid to not double team them. Having Chris Bosh makes it stupid to double team them. Having all three makes a stupidly good offense.

 

Off-Screens

The third way a team uses the screen is to have players run through screens, picking off their defenders and creating shots. While Tim Duncan is the best screen-setter I’ve ever watched, the San Antonio Spurs as a unit are an incredible team when it comes to utilizing that aspect of the game. The screen is the heart of their highly efficient motion offense. 

They average 1.02 points per play off screens, which is second best in the league. They run all manner of screens: back screens (set on the defender’s blind side), pin-down screens (set to “pin down” the defender against the baseline and free up a shot near the hoop or at the elbow), and cross screens (where the screen is lateral, usually for another backcourt player).

They use floppy screens, single-double screens, and staggered screens. 

They use enough screens that Dr. Seuss could write a book about them. 

They use these all effectively and create any manner of shots for each of their players.

Most NBA players can hit an open jumper, even if they aren’t a great scorer.  The reason the Spurs seem so adept at turning late-draft picks and waiver-wire scraps into solid role players is that Gregg Popovich gets everyone to set screens, and as a result, he gets open shots or everyone.

Watch the montage above of the Spurs setting and scoring off screens against the Lakers. Note the diversity of players, methods of screen, who sets the screens and who scores. Yes, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are one of the elite pick-and-roll pairings in the Association, but the whole team is locked into the philosophy of setting and using picks to create open shots, and that commitment makes the Spurs the second-most efficient team in the league.

 

Secondary Points off Screens

There is not an official stat or category for secondary points off screens, not even on Synergy, but it certainly warrants inclusion. That is when a screen sets up the points on a play, even if it wasn’t directly the reason why the points were scored.

For an example of this we’ll again go to the San Antonio Spurs, who will run the pick-and-roll with Duncan and Parker. Duncan will set the pick for Parker, who will start to drive to the rim, but when he does so, Danny Green’s defender will come over to help, leaving Green open, and Parker finds Green for the three.

Technically the shooter was not involved with the screen, either in setting it or coming off of it, but he was the beneficiary of it. There is no way of telling exactly how often spot-up jumpers are set up indirectly by the screen, but my guess is it’s somewhere between “lots” and “way more than we think.”

Screens have an enormous impact on the game. They are the supporting walls of any good team.

As you’re watching the playoffs, every once in a while forget about the score, the scoring, the ball handler, the announcing and everything else. Lock in on the screeners and notice how much impact they have on the game. Most of the time, whoever is doing a better job of screening is winning.

There’s a reason the best teams in the league have the best screen-setters. If the NBA had a stat for “points scored off of picks”, we might re-evaluate the efficacy of some players in the league in their favor.

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