Every NBA team, in some capacity, relies on the pick-and-roll. Transition offenses depend on this action to space the court for spot-up shooters. Half-court offenses use it to initiate a set, create a mismatch or bail out a failed possession.
Its offensive execution is simple: Have one player brush the on-ball defender with varying degrees of contact, followed by a roll to the rim or pop to the perimeter. Because it's more parts feel and read than design, defenses have trouble handling the myriad possibilities: a pass to the roller, shooter or cutter; a drive to the basket or pull-up jumper; or a clear-out isolation after a switch.
With 27.9 seconds left in Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals, LeBron James drifted right off a pick-and-roll, set his feet and nailed a jump shot to put his Miami Heat up four points over the San Antonio Spurs. The play was simple but precise—the consequence of split-second choices that cost one team the Larry O'Brien trophy and handed back-to-back rings to the other.
So how do defenses handle it? It's a fluid process, often requiring a deeper understanding of particular circumstances and opposing personnel. But the key to pick-and-roll defense, no matter the technique, is communication.
Hedge and Recover
If defenses can help it, they don't want to switch matchups after a pick-and-roll. Oftentimes, however, the on-ball defender is hit hard enough by a pick that there's no choice. Without a switch, the ball-handler will run free to the rim.
One option, if executed properly, solves this problem: the hedge and recover. Most simply, this involves the second defender, who is guarding the screener, to extend all the way out and stop the ball-handler from turning the corner.
Here, Miami's Norris Cole doesn't even get touched by San Antonio's Tim Duncan. Duncan actually slips the screen, flaring to the baseline and looking for a quick pocket pass. Miami's defensive scheme prioritizes pressure on the ball-handler, either through a hard hedge or trap, and San Antonio hopes to take advantage of this pressure by slipping a pass between Cole and Chris Bosh before they can harass Tony Parker.
Bosh does a good job of keeping his right hand low to the ground as a deterrent for this pass, and Cole trails Parker from behind. But the key to the hedge, more than immediate pressure and forcing a turnover, is stopping the ball-handler from turning the corner towards the rim.
Notice how Bosh remains on the high side—keeping his back to the opposite sideline, thereby forcing Parker to swerve all the way around to the right side of the lane. (The hedge could be harder, with Bosh completely perpendicular to the baseline, but this is a schematic decision.)
Coupled with the ball pressure, Parker's head is down and he is less able to distribute. Once Parker dribbles far enough away from Duncan and Bosh senses that Cole has recovered to Parker, he scrambles back to Duncan. Though Parker hits a difficult floater, the defense is mostly successful.
Chuck and Recover
The terminology varies from coach to coach, but this type of pick-and-roll defense is a specific subset of the hedge and recover.
The "chuck" portion of this defense involves the defender of the corner shooter. As the man guarding the pick-setter hedges and the on-ball defender recovers to the ball-handler, the corner shooter defender "chucks" the roller—that is, he shows momentarily to prevent a pass to the roller, but quickly recovers to his man.
If not executed properly, this can be a risky defense. It's up to the hedging defender to quickly recover to his man, the roller, so the wing can fly back out to the three-point shooter before he can knock down a shot. Furthermore, if the wing gets stuck on the roller, it's an immediate mismatch. A big will have good position against a smaller wing, and often it will lead to an easy two points.
The key to the entire play, then, is the hedge. The hedging defender must only "show," which is to say that he turns perpendicular for only a brief moment. His show must be enough to force the ball-handler either to dribble wide, making the pass back to the corner shooter harder, or momentarily put his head down so he can't see the pass in the first place.
See here: Iman Shumpert and Tyson Chandler run a pick-and-roll from the left side. Detroit's Greg Monroe steps out to handle Shumpert as Chandler rolls to the rim.
Monroe, however, doesn't venture out quite far enough onto the perimeter. At no time does he make contact with Shumpert or obstruct his vision, leading to a weak double-team by Monroe and Shumpert's original defender, Kyle Singler.
This is not problematic in terms of Shumpert as an immediate scoring threat. He's dribbling sideways and double-teamed, and therefore not going anywhere. But Brandon Knight, who was originally guarding Jason Kidd in the weak-side corner, slides down to chuck Chandler on the roll.
Knight does his job properly, but Shumpert fires a pass to the wide open Kidd before Knight can get back to contest in time.
On the surface, the fault would seem to lie with Knight. But Monroe's lack of a proper show gives Shumpert both the time and the space to evaluate his options. Though Kidd misses, Detroit gets lucky.
The pick-and-roll trap is an extended version of the hedge and recover. Instead of everyone eventually finding their way back to their original man, both defenders involved in the pick-and-roll immediately attack the ball-handler.
The idea is this: Force the ball-handler far away from the hoop and dare him to make a long, cross-court pass to a seemingly open man. It's here that defenses hope to capitalize, swooping in and nabbing the pass to create a transition opportunity the other way, or simply grabbing the ball from the dribbler.
This is Miami's calling card. Against Paul George in last year's playoffs—and typically any non-primary ball-handler, for that matter—Miami made a point of blitzing him whenever an on-ball screen came. Typically, traps are reserved for pick-and-rolls near the sideline, as it acts as a third defender while significantly shrinking the court.
When LeBron James jumps out at George on this play, George has nowhere to go. Offensive teams typically space the floor on the weak side for the two-man game, and that's where the trap finds its success: Miami only needs two defenders to handle three shooters, with one big (Chris Andersen) ready to protect the rim.
George tries to get cute and tuck a quick pass between Allen and James. But the trap has its desired effect, as David West is not ready for the ball and it falls into Andersen's hands.
For a team like Miami with great overall speed, the trap works well. Their bigs can typically blitz ball-handlers before they're ready, and turnovers are created at a high rate. But if George completes that pass to West, he's wide open for a jumper. The trap, quite simply, is the most boom or bust style pick-and-roll defense.
Again, lots of terminology choices here, but the meaning is the same. "Downing" the pick-and-roll is usually a call made by the big defending a side pick-and-roll, and this indicates to the on-ball defender that he should position his body like this:
By putting Orlando's Nikola Vucevic on his back, Chicago's Kirk Hinrich has downed the pick-and-roll—he's literally forcing the ball-handler, E'Twaun Moore, down into the corner and completely cutting off any move towards the middle. This defense is more of a funnel, guiding the ball-handler to an ineffective area of the floor: the corner. The job of the helping big, Carlos Boozer, is to sag, preventing a straight-line drive to the rim by Moore and discouraging a roll to the rim by Vucevic.
Because there's also no easy lane to throw the ball into the roller, and an offense will counter by having the big pop for elbow jumper or long two. For most teams, this is a shot they're willing to give up. The long two is the worst shot in basketball, and so it's not the worst result in the world. That's what happens here, and Vucevic misses. This is a staple of the Bulls' pick-and-roll defense.
These are some of the basic defensive sets used to cover the screen-and-roll offense, but there are other details, too. Depending on the ball-handler's shooting ability, an on-ball defender might choose to slide under the pick instead of fighting over it—he wants to encourage the poor shooter to jack up a shot. Or if it's a player like Steph Curry, the situation is reversed. The on-ball defender will fight over the pick, doing everything in his power to force a move to the rim.
All of this can be broken down even further. The "under" move can be a "one" or "two," which indicates how many players the on-ball defender goes under. If it's one, it's just the pick-setter. If two, it's both the pick-setter and the pick-setter's defender.
Some defenses, like Indiana, have their bigs sag and their guards fight over, with the idea of forcing a mid-range pull-up. Other teams, like the Knicks, simply have their defenders switch. Pick-and-roll defense varies from coach to team to player, but it's certainly one of the most practiced and game-planned areas of the game.