CAMDEN, N.J. — Brett Brown had kept the play tucked away in his pocket all game. He was waiting to unleash it at the perfect moment. This was it.
A little more than a minute remained in Game 4 of the first round. Brown's Sixers were clinging to a one-point lead over the Heat. He signaled to Ben Simmons, the Sixers' supersized and super-skilled rookie point guard, who stood tall at the top of the key as his teammates spread across the court. A few seconds later, Sixers sharpshooter JJ Redick, who was their smallest player on the floor at the time, darted up from the foul line toward the three-point arc, flexed his arms and delivered a bruising back screen into the left shoulder of Heat forward James Johnson, who was defending Simmons.
It was a basic pick-and-roll, the type that nearly every NBA offense runs nearly every possession of every game. Every NBA defender, and especially those playing for stout playoff units like the Heat, is schooled on how to slow it. Maybe switching assignments on the pick, or maybe trapping the ball-handler and sliding a defender toward the paint to help.
Yet on this play the normally locked-in Heat defense short-circuited. Miami swingman Josh Richardson corralled Redick, in an attempt to prevent the career 41.5 percent three-point shooter from scooting out toward the perimeter and unloading a trey. But Redick had no intention of receiving the ball, so he planted his feet, building a wall between Johnson and Simmons and paving a clear path for Simmons to the rim.
Simmons slammed the ball through moments later, giving the Sixers a three-point cushion that they'd ride to a Game 4 win and commanding 3-1 series lead.
Now, having disposed of Miami in five games and advancing for the first time since 2012 to the second round of the playoffs, where they'll take on the Boston Celtics starting Monday night, the embryonic, post-Process Sixers suddenly resemble a title team. They're big and long and explosive, and their surrounding conference is crumbling. According to the latest numbers out of Las Vegas, the Sixers are the favorite to emerge from the East.
Most of their meteoric rise can be attributed to the respective breakouts of their young stars, Simmons and Joel Embiid. But it takes more than a strong pair to transform into a Finals contender. You need reliable role players, like the 33-year-old Redick, who averaged a career-best 17.1 points per game this season while drilling 42.0 percent of his looks from deep. But you also need a system that can blend all these ancillary parts with the team's main engines in a way that best leverages the talents of everyone involved.
For the Sixers, that's meant leaning on Redick's shooting but also utilizing his lesser-known and more hidden elite skill: the ability, as Simmons' last-minute Game 4 dunk showed, to produce points with a screen.
"A lot of guys hit you with unexpected screens or wide screens and it's hard to get around, but with JJ, it's not about the physicality," Johnson told Bleacher Report after a Heat practice last week. "He's different. He's playing chess out there with his screens."
Going back to his collegiate days at Duke, Redick has spent the majority of his career zooming around screens as opposed to setting them. But during his seven-year stint with the Orlando Magic—who drafted him in 2006 before trading him to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2013—he began screening away from the ball for big men, like Dwight Howard.
The Clippers, whom he signed with in the summer of 2013, used Redick as a screener even more. Doc Rivers drew up plays with Redick starting on the elbow, next to another Clipper with a ball-handler at the top of the key (in what are called "horns" sets) and flaring out toward the arc. Occasionally, Rivers would have Redick screen on the ball, a role traditionally reserved for big men, not slender, 6'4" guards.
"We had a few actions where I'd screen for Blake [Griffin], but that was really it," Redick said during an interview last week at the Sixers' training facility.
But after signing a one-year, $23 million deal with the Sixers last summer, Redick began thinking about ways to vault his new team into playoff contention. He believed setting more screens for others could help. He discussed the idea with Brown during the offseason, who agreed.
"It was something that was on my mind, especially once I realized that [Simmons] was going to be the full-time point guard," Redick said. "I thought that would create an opportunity to put the defense in a position where they had to make some choices."
Switch, and a smaller defender is stuck staring up at the 6'10", 230-pound Simmons. Trap or hedge (meaning the defender guarding the screener takes a step toward the ball-handler until his teammate can recover), and Redick has space to fire from deep. Going under the screen gives Simmons room to step on the gas and get to the rim.
Redick's sweet shooting always has, and will, be his primary weapon. But his ability to influence action even without the ball, such as with a screen, is a big reason the Sixers offense this year was 4.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, one of the better marks among all NBA wing players, per Cleaning the Glass.
"[Redick] as a screener offers a new dynamic," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said last week.
The Sixers deployed this design a few times early in the season. But it took about three months for them to recognize how potent the action was. It wasn't until after Christmas that rival coaches and scouts began seeing the play repeatedly pop up on film.
Then the All-Star break came. The Sixers at the time were outperforming expectations but also struggling to execute late in close contests. They outscored their opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions in the 28 games they played in which the score was within five points with under two minutes remaining, according to NBA.com. They had gone 15-13 in those contests.
It was an average mark, not good enough if the team wanted to climb the standings.
"When we first started the season it was like, 'OK, how are we going to close the game?'" Redick recalled. "It was one of the things we had to figure out."
One of Brown's solutions was to ensure that at least one shooter was involved in plays his team ran late. Sometimes that meant continuing with the team's basic flow offense, often involving Redick passing and catching from the elbow in those "horns" sets; sometimes it meant a specific play call, like a Redick on-ball screen.
"[My screening] has been sort of our closing play for a while, but I think it's a good sort of variance between the two where we can mix things up," Redick said. "I think our execution from where we were at the beginning of the season in terms of running a set play is significantly better, and I think our trust of both those concepts, whether it's a set play or our [flow] stuff, is much higher than it was at the beginning of the year."
The numbers back up his belief. It was only 10 games, but after the All-Star break the Sixers outscored opponents by an astronomical 63.3 points per 100 possessions in contests within five points with under two minutes remaining, per NBA.com. It was this masterful last-minute execution that sealed their Game 4 win over the Heat and handed them the series.
"If you look at any of the shooters [in the NBA], or we what we do with JJ, you put him in some screening action and defenses have a decision to make," Brown told Bleacher Report.
But it's not just the threat of him flaring out for a triple that makes the Sixers unstoppable on plays where Redick plants a screen.
"It's his IQ," Johnson said. "If you sag off your man"—like Johnson did on Simmons prior to that Game 4 dunk—"he'll come over and, instead of setting the screen on the elbow—which is normally where that screen comes on a horns set—he'll set it in the middle of the foul line so then you have to go over when you game-planned to go under."
That sort of confusion is exactly what Redick wants to trigger. He said he has "a memory bank of the last 12 years" of opposing pick-and-roll coverages and will purposely manipulate defenders with a series of slips (bailing on the screen early and flashing to a spot) and flips (changing the side of the screen at the last moment, a tactic referred to around the NBA as "Varejao," in honor of Anderson Varejao, the former NBA big man who was renowned for that move).
"And then, like, Ben is so big and he has such a good handle, I don't have to tell him what I'm going to do because he's so under control and poised," Redick added. "Sometimes I'll give him a look, like, 'Hey, man, go to dunk, I'm going to f--king lay this guy out, I don't think they're coming off me.' But for the most part, he's always making the right read."
Redick is also adept at adjusting on the fly. He'll often lay a trap for opponents by taking advantage of the way they guard him. This year, for example, he said defenders have adopted a new strategy for slowing his off-ball ballet.
"They'll get behind me and literally wrap both their arms around me, like a bear hug from behind," he said. "It's weird. This is the first year that I think teams have done that."
Redick said the Sixers have sent in video clips of this tactic to the NBA, but there's been no change. And so now, "if a team cheats [on the screen] and bear-hugs me, I'm just going to literally go screen the guy and my guy's too busy bear-hugging me to do anything," Redick said. "Joel has gotten, I don't know, a dozen dunks this year off that play."
Embiid might be the one credited with those points. But it's Redick's other skill that created them and in the process has helped transform the Sixers into a most unexpected contender.
Odds via OddsShark.