Blake Griffin can't help himself.
It's a typical Clippers practice, and Doc Rivers wants all five of his players in motion, so he has his team run a half-court exercise where they can't set any pick-and-rolls. But every time Rivers calls for the drill, Griffin loses focus and finds himself initiating a pick-and-roll with Chris Paul.
"It never fails," Griffin said, referring to his routine habit. But it was an indirect point well-taken: The Clippers' pick-and-roll featuring himself, Paul and a steady dose of DeAndre Jordan has become one of the most unguardable plays in the NBA.
Last season, Paul and Griffin averaged 1.11 team points per possession on pick-and-rolls (according to STATS via SportVU), ranking fifth in the league. And Paul was just as productive with Jordan, further demonstrating the impact of the Clippers' two-man game. Not surprisingly, Paul and Griffin ran the second-most ball screens (971) in the league last season (for those tandems averaging at least 0.96 team points per possession), while Griffin and Jordan combined for the seventh-highest total (758).
The pick-and-roll has long been a staple in basketball, and perhaps no team rode it to more acclaimed success in recent years than the Utah Jazz featuring John Stockton and Karl Malone, who reached back-to-back Finals in 1997 and '98. Of course, they weren't alone.
There were Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers in Phoenix, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp in Seattle and later Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning in Miami. Then came Tony Parker and Tim Duncan in San Antonio, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas and later Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire with a new team in Phoenix.
Now the torch has been passed to Paul and Griffin.
"When you've got a guy like Chris Paul that's a great scorer and he passes the ball so well, and they've got shooters surrounding him, it makes it hard to control the ball," Damian Lillard said. "Blake is going to go get [the ball] over everybody else. And Blake is getting a lot better at the pick-and-pop, so they can get to any option in the pick-and-roll. When you can get to every option and it's effective, that makes it that much harder to guard."
Their partnership doesn't come without plenty of preparation. The two work on different angles and situations before practice, and they study film of how certain teams defend pick-and-rolls. Paul and Griffin can run them anywhere with the same results, delivering more than one team point per possession on the left (1.11), right (1.13) and middle (1.09) of the court last season—more than seven percent higher than the league averages for all three (according to STATS via SportVU).
"The pick-and-roll is such a dynamic play that it changes every possession, which direction you go, and it's the toughest thing to defend," Paul said. "I've made a living off the pick-and-roll."
Paul is arguably the most creative and deceptive ball-handler in the NBA with gifted passing and play-calling abilities that have convinced Rivers to give him a lot of flexibility running the offense. "He's smarter than me," Rivers said. Then there's Griffin, a rare breed of power and athleticism with a skilled ground game of low-post moves and some of the best fundamentals in the league for a big man. "He has the whole package," Rivers said.
Let's examine the elements further.
Beyond his obvious talents, Paul popularized a move that has revolutionized the pick-and-roll: a cross-back maneuver. Instead of driving toward the basket after a pick, Paul—who recalls first trying the move during a practice during his second or third year in New Orleans playing with Tyson Chandler—curls tight around the pick, putting his point guard defender on his back, and dribbles to the other side of the free-throw line with the big man defender also trailing him.
With two defenders gravitating toward Paul, that creates more room for a pocket pass to a teammate. It also confuses the middle of a defense, where a sag off to shade Griffin or Jordan from attacking the basket can give Paul enough space to shoot a pull-up jumper with his slight fade and high release point to counter being 6'0". Entering Wednesday, he's hitting 57.3 percent from mid-range (according to NBA.com), way above his 47.4 percent mark when he first arrived in Los Angeles in 2011-12.
Since Paul has mastered the "cross screen," as the Clippers call it, more point guards—even Kobe Bryant, according to an Eastern Conference scout—started copying his maneuver.
"[The late] Jack Ramsay every time he saw me, he used to always tell me that he loved how I started doing that," Paul said. "He said I was the first one that he saw do that. A lot of guys try to use it against me."
Lillard has taken note.
"You're taught as a defender in the pick-and-roll to get back in front of the ball to pursue the ball, and he gets you on his back so you can't get back in front of him," Lillard said. "So that's putting the defense and the big man in a tough position to basically pick—if you're going to stop the ball or stop the lob. And that's why it's so effective."
In today's faster-paced NBA, most point guards want to push and shoot fast. And they'd prefer to go completely around a hard show by the big-man defender to try to speed by him to the basket or make a quick pass if the pressure persists. But Paul doesn't avoid extra contact and adjusts well on the fly, pointing out who he wants as a fall-back screener.
Paul can change speeds quickly with exceptional balance and controls his dribble well in traffic, making behind-the-back passes out of pick-and-rolls and difficult sidearm passes with his opposite left hand down the baseline. His 6.19 assist-to-turnover ratio is best in the league.
"Chris can pick things up and calls audibles. It's like Peyton Manning with Denver," the East scout said. "Chris is also like a kung fu player on the basketball court. He's very physical, and he has a chip on his shoulder. Stockton was the same way. That's why teams physically try to pound the hell out of him, sometimes with a bigger defender."
But Paul said he's "seen all coverages," comparing his style of play to martial arts.
"When I'm coming, I'm reacting to what you do," he said. "When you get really good at (the pick-and-roll), you stop thinking about it and it just becomes reactive. It's like people that fight, martial arts. Whatever you do, that's what I'm going to do. It's the same thing basketball-wise."
Blake Branches out
Griffin's shooting improvement has arguably been the biggest addition to the Clippers' pick-and-roll. In 2012, the team hired esteemed shooting coach Bob Thate, who the New Jersey Nets brought on years ago to work with Jason Kidd, to specifically help Griffin, who had a hitch at the top of his jump.
"A lot of his shots hit the front of the rim," the East scout said. "He still has a little bit of a hitch, but it's less. His shot has more rhythm."
It also has become an increasingly bigger focus of his game. In 2012-13, Griffin averaged 1.204 points per roll (according to Synergy Sports). Last season: 0.953. This year: 0.778.
But after hitting 33.9 percent from mid-range during his rookie season in 2010-11 (according to NBA.com), Griffin is at 39.4 percent so far this year. He's also attempting more from mid-range, firing off 8.1 shots per game from the area this season as opposed to 5.8 in 2013-14. Not only are Paul and Griffin more successful in pick-and-pops, but Griffin is also finding open looks when leaking out to the weak-side perimeter during strong-side pick-and-roll action.
Griffin's outside development has given the Clippers a boost in side pick-and-rolls, which he ran 51 percent of the time on the left side last season with Paul, leading to a standout 1.11 points per play (according to STATS via SportVU). One reason for the favored left side—21 percent on the right—is because, off a pass, Griffin likes to penetrate the middle of the paint with his natural right hand.
So when Paul gets forced down the sideline by his point guard defender and the opposing big man—increasingly more teams want to do this to limit spread offenses and swing passes to the opposite baseline corner—he'll often make a pocket pass to Griffin.
Then there are options: He can shoot at the elbow, kick out to Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford or J.J. Redick, or throw a lob to Jordan, who's finishing 76.3 percent of his attempts in the restricted area (according to NBA.com). "It's like a boom-boom play or hockey assist," the East scout said.
"My job, especially now, is to find the open area," said Griffin, an underrated passer who's averaged nearly four assists per game over his career. "I don't roll every time, I don't pop every time. I try to mix it up, and I think that's a key. It's keeping it a good mix, so (the pick-and-roll) is not predictable."
Griffin's expanding game isn't just generated by his shooting touch. He also occasionally facilitates his own pick-and-rolls with Jordan, who's averaging a league-leading 1.824 points per roll this season (according to Synergy Sports).
"We started doing it a little bit toward the end of the season last year with DJ and me," Griffin said. "It just gives us a different look because two bigs aren't really used to guarding both sides of the pick-and-roll, so maybe we can catch somebody off guard, especially in transition."
Follow the Greaseboard
Misdirection is the name of the Clippers' evolving pick-and-roll game. It starts with Griffin and Jordan, who are great at faking a screen and then rolling quickly to the basket, even while initiating a drag screen in transition. They're also nifty against Paul's defender, where they might initially approach the defender to the side, but then rotate to stand directly behind him to sandwich him from going left or right. Both Griffin and Jordan set wide, strong bases.
And with Paul directing, a defense can never rest.
"If [Paul] doesn't like what he sees, he'll do a re-screen. He may do a third screen," Crawford said. "So for the defense, that's tough for a guard to fight through all those screens and still be up there with him."
Then there are the quick ball handoffs. Sometimes if Griffin is coming off a down screen, Paul will pass the ball to him and then he'll flip it right back to Paul to engage in a pick-and-roll. That abrupt action can confuse the defense.
Beyond those different nuances, misdirection lies in the Clippers' actual half-court plays, and that's where Rivers cleverly has his team running pick-and-rolls in more secondary action.
"That's where their pick-and-roll is the deadliest because defenses are not expecting it," said NBA analytics guru Justin Zormelo, who has worked for the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls. "When it's their first option, teams load up on it. While the Clippers sometimes make their pick-and-rolls too predictable and over dribble in them against top teams, they're running things more sharply. It reminds me of the precision during Doc's championship run in Boston."
Rivers even had Griffin this preseason watch film of how he coached Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett to play off each other. Jordan has studied Tyson Chandler.
"Doc always wants things to get to the second option, the third option, the fourth option," Crawford said, "because in the playoffs the really good teams are going to take away the first option."
No matter the option, Rivers tries to plot a new range of actions.
Take these three schemes, for example:
In one, Griffin and Redick set a staggered screen for Crawford in the right baseline corner, and after Crawford runs to the other side without getting open, Griffin then executes a pick-and-roll with Paul at the top of the key, which ends with a Griffin floater.
In a second, Redick is at the left elbow and runs a down screen for Griffin on the right block. Paul passes to Griffin on his way up, Griffin sends the ball back to Paul and then sets a pick for him. Paul runs off it and makes a pocket pass to Griffin, who dribbles in and lobs the ball to Jordan for the dunk.
And in a third, Paul is on the strong-side left wing and Crawford sets a back screen at the strong-side elbow for Redick, who frees up to set a screen for Griffin on the opposite block. Griffin runs off it, fakes as if he's going to post up and then sets an up-screen for Paul, who uses it to knock down the jumper.
Rivers believes Paul and Griffin, the heart and soul of the Clippers' offense, still haven't reached their potential as a duo yet.
"Their chemistry is growing," he said. "It's not perfect yet, but it's really good, and it's just going to keep getting better. The thing is they both know they need each other, and that makes it work."