Some observations I made last night while enduring a six NBA game marathon (Hornets – Bucks and the five Christmas games).
John Wall’s Wizardry in the Pick-n-Roll
John Wall allowed me to thoroughly enjoy the Wizards – Knicks game, which otherwise was marked by Jon Barry’s utter disbelief that the Knicks are actually a bad basketball team, Quincy Acy’s temper tantrum and the overall feeling that there’s no way that New York could win this game.
Wall is a master at picking defenses apart, predicting the following chain of events seconds before they actually happen. Put him in the pick-n-roll against Jose Calderon and the Knicks and an open shot is a foregone conclusion. Let’s look at this series of three back-to-back possessions which end with a John Wall pick-n-roll.
Jason Smith is early to step to the level of the screen on the first play, doing so before Wall even makes a move (and rightfully so, he’s toast if he drops back and gives Wall the space to operate, after John has predictably blown past Calderon):
Wall sees this, goes to his left to attract Smith’s attention and thus twists the defense in such a way that Kris Humphries gets a free mid-range look:
Next time down Wall, now knowing how Calderon and Smith will approach the pick-n-roll, allows them to believe that the same motion is coming before hitting Jose with a nasty crossover and opening up a wide open lane for himself:
While the third play of this series has Wall running a pick-n-roll with Gortat and toying with Jason Smith in the helper role by making him choose between Kris Humphries (who has already hit the mid-range jumper) and Marcin. Notice how John hesitates in the air to see whether Smith will commit to the Polish Hammer before hitting Gortat with the pass:
His ingenious court awareness can be noticed even better in transition offense where Washington can be especially scary thanks to Wall’s speed and wings adept to run by the side-lines and station themselves for threes.
I really enjoyed these two certain back-to-back fast breaks in the middle of the third quarter. The first one is a fairly common example of the ball handler driving towards the paint to attract just enough attention from the transition defender before kicking it out for an open three:
However, this play is truly something special:
The fact that Humphries was a trailer on this play was in Wall’s mind the entire time as evidenced by him not even looking backwards before actually making the pass.
Thunder’s Aggressive Pick-n-Roll Defense
The Spurs – Thunder game featured an ongoing battle in the pick-n-roll, with Thunder having their big men hedging on these plays as usual. It’s a risky thing to live by since the Spurs employ, perhaps, an even more wizard-like pick-n-roll ball handler than Wall in Manu Ginobili. Tim Duncan meanwhile offered his usual Spursian last-second decisions of switching the side on which he’ll set the screen, tricky enough to always cause difficulties:
While the previous two aspects are constants, Gregg Popovich also threw one variable out there in the person of Matt Bonner (whose 17-point performance was my favorite event of the night, providing such scary moments such as me, alone in a room, jumping up from my sofa and maniacally laughing after his fast break dunk). When the pass to Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter, who just had slipped the screen and cut towards the basket, wasn’t there, Bonner offered the ball handler a release valve, whether in the form of coming up to three-point line from the paint (or should I say “painted area”, this game having been announced by Hubie Brown):
or being positioned on the three-point line to force Serge Ibaka to make a decision:
There’s a reason why Oklahoma can afford to do this though. They are just enough out of this world athleticism and wingspan wise to fly all over the court and force turnovers. Even though I usually don’t prefer Russell Westbrook’s style of play on defense since I rather have a guard who sticks to the overall team principles than one who gets out of position too often, he was really fun to watch last night. You could sense that around the second quarter he had seen enough of what the Spurs do in the pick-n-roll to start wandering around and intercept those Manu Ginobili passes by whom, for better or for worse, he sometimes lives and dies by, no matter the degree of difficulty on these plays.
Of course, as it often is with Russell there were gambles which didn’t pay off and left him completely out of position:
But, overall, it felt like his effort was a properly applied aspect of an aggressive Thunder defense that gave the Spurs enough difficulties to win the game.
In such situations as the last one, Manu would have enough savvy and height to attempt his signature pass where he hangs in the air long enough to see to which team-mate the weak-side defender will commit to. Put Marco Belinelli in such a play and it ends differently. Great win for the Westbrook and Adams-lead Thunder.
Cavs Guards Allowing Middle
Just to get it out of the way, I won’t go the obvious route and point out how bad Kevin Love is at defending the rim. Yes, he just can’t do it. By my observations, the Cavaliers are in a bad spot when the pick-n-roll is run against the other big thus leaving Love as the sole rim protector. They might have to think about toning it down a bit as their ultra-aggressive hedging just might not work with this personnel. It has produced results only in small stretches and that’s because it’s hard for them to summon initial hedges and traps smothering enough to make up for Love’s inefficiency if the offense does indeed break down those traps. I also won’t go on about LeBron visibly saving energy on defense. There have been enough examples of that around the internet for you to get the picture.
However, what I do find interesting is the glitch that occurs from time to time with the Cavaliers guards playing matador defense and completely allowing the ball handler to reach the middle of the court:
This Kyrie Irving breakdown instantly reminded me of Dion Waiters sometimes committing the same mistake:
Why does that happen? Cleveland isn’t a conservative team that treats ball-handlers on the side of the court by denying them the middle and the screen, which is called “icing” the pick-n-roll. They encourage their guards to allow the opponent to use that screen since the plan is to stop his movement with a hedge, as talked about previously in this column:
Only problem is that Kyrie’s and Dion’s reputation for their defense is quite accurate. There will be times when they either expect a screen that isn’t there or the screener slips the screen before setting it, which results in a wide open lane that Kyle Lowry would use in this instance:
Something to monitor when watching Cleveland play in the future.
Other Random Thoughts
Steven Adams was just beasting under the baskets;
Russell Westbrook isn’t human;
I enjoy it when Manu Ginobili goes back to the half-court after a switch and gives himself a running start:
Chris Andersen looked frisky and had a hop to his step, which I didn’t know was there any more:
Dwyane Wade got a bit carried away with his one-on-one game in the second half as it brought Cleveland back in the game;
It wasn’t fair for Chicago to have Nikola Mirotic against the Lakers bigs, Carlos Boozer looked lost;
I enjoyed Jimmy Butler’s post-up game;
I didn’t enjoy Jordan Hill almost being the team leader in field goal attempts (or, in a way, I actually did enjoy watching him fire up questionable mid-range looks);
Surprisingly bad shooting in the Warriors – Clippers game;
Draymond Green was just great when defending in the post.
Happy Holidays to all of my readers out there! I hope you had a lovely Christmas and I wish you fun on New Year’s eve.