Rejecting Ball Screens and Beating the “Down”

Today’s NBA is defined by the ball screen-and-roll.  Every team runs several variations of it and has nuanced and still-developing ways of defending it, and games are won and lost on that action and its subsequent ramifications more than any other.  Making your shots and forcing the other team into missing theirs is still the surest way to victory, of course.  But the best route to ensure both those successes is by manufacturing easy looks at the basket via picks, rolls, pops, slips, drives, skips, pocket passes, pull-ups and more, while preventing them off those same activities on the other end.

The Dallas Mavericks rode a dominant roll man and crafty playmaking to a title in 2011, surrounding Tyson Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki/Jason Kidd/Jason Terry with shooters to force the defense into giving way to one option or another.  And last season, the Miami Heat embraced small-ball and kickstarted the position-less revolution by aggressively blitzing or switching the pick-and-roll on defense, and giving LeBron James and Dwyane Wade carte blanche to attack – for themselves or a quartet of teammates spreading the floor – off their own screen how they saw fit.

So the pick-and-roll has been around forever, but it’s clear the present is its heyday.  And as PNRs are ran all the more often, teams are coming up with more consistently effective ways to attack them on defense, and individual players – the ballhandler, screener and the remaining trio – are getting smarter in adjusting to those adjustments.  And one of them is a strategy made en vogue (though it’s been around far longer) by the San Antonio Spurs in last year’s playoffs against Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers – “downing,” “blueing” or “icing” the dribbler.  Or, essentially, not allowing him to use the pick and forcing him – for the most part, at least – away from the middle into a pocket created by the two primary defenders.

The vernacular changes from team-to-team and based on where the action takes place on the floor, but the benefits of making the dribbler “refuse” the pick are always the same: both immediately involved offensive players lose momentum and assertiveness, and the ballhandler is forced into a swath of inefficiency some 17-feet-plus away from the basket by the defense.  The hard drive and attack off the pick isn’t there, the aggressive role isn’t there and the well-timed pop isn’t, either.

It’s all easier said than done for the defense, of course, and requires defenders of certain strength, smarts and discipline to execute consistently, let alone well.  But the merits are obvious when it’s working, and that’s why teams like Chicago and Golden State make disallowing ball screens such an important cog of their defensive systems.  Players want to use those screens in the direction they’re meant to be used, and when they can’t sets break down more often  and possessions go to isolation hell.

Well, for the majority of players anyway.  Some creators are far more adept than others at refusing screens, and have the requisite combination of feel and decisiveness to know when doing so – even voluntarily – can give them an advantage.  On Friday’s Miami Heat-Los Angeles Clippers broadcast, Jeff Van Gundy said, “The great pick-and-roll players reject the screen as much as they use it.” Very true, and the following clips help illustrate why going away from a ball screen – by force or choice – is sometimes the dribbler’s best option given miscues of various degrees by primary and help defenders.

James Harden is a devastating playmaker off the dribble, and Kevin McHale takes advantage of it by spreading the floor with shooters and putting him in as many pick-and-roll situations as any other player in the league. But he’s not without his weaknesses, most glaring of which is his lack of a strong right-hand. Dwyane Wade knows that, and slides aggressively into Omer Asik as the latter comes to set a screen for Harden on the right wing.

Miami blitzes ball screens more than any other team in the league, relying on their remarkable team speed to scramble into rotations and trick the offense into making rash decisions. That’s Udonis Haslem’s play here as he gets into position behind Asik, and Harden both knows it’s coming and sees it developing. Worse for the Heat, Wade – perhaps by design, daring the lefty to use his weak hand – does a poor job of keeping himself between Harden and that vast, open space to his immediate left. And LeBron James, positioned in the paint guarding Patrick Patterson, assumes that aggressive hedge and perhaps a trap is coming and Harden will be forced towards the key.

But Harden sees it all – Wade’s over-aggression, Haslem’s coming blitz and James’ reluctance to fully commit to the strong side of the floor – and goes away from the screen by utilizing a quick jab in the opposite direction followed by a right-handed dribble. Miami’s out of position all over the floor because the Heat expected Harden to use Asik’s pick, and all that floor space makes it easy for Harden to gather himself for a strong rim attack.

He misses, but that matters not here. The Heat were out of sync all over the floor due to Wade’s initial mistake of giving Harden the sideline when Haslem planned on hedging, and one of the league’s best finishers had an easy shot because of it. The Beard doesn’t miss layups often; Miami clearly got away with one.

The first clip was simply a superior player rejecting a screen; Miami planned Harden would use it all along, he just saw a better option and took it. In the above, though, “downing” comes into play.

LeBron James catches a pass from Udonis Haslem just above the left timeline. On the catch, Jeffrey Taylor hops towards halfcourt, anticipating Haslem following his pass into a ball screen. Taylor assumes correctly, and Jeff Adrien – Haslem’s defender – puts the blue/down/ice in motion by leaving Haslem and making a pocket between he and Taylor some 19-feet from the basket extended.

James is one of the smartest players in the league and noticed the strategy immediately. Instead of waiting passively or trying to force his way over the top of Haslem’s screen, he takes the space the Bobcats want to give him. This is a win for Charlotte – Haslem’s roll is relaxed, LeBron’s dribble has no momentum and the three other Bobcats are in relatively good position. But again, James is a genius. He takes an extra, seemingly pointless dribble that allows Haslem’s roll an extra millisecond of threat. Bismack Biyombo – guarding Chris Bosh and situated in the middle of the paint – worries Adrien won’t be able to recover quickly enough to bother Haslem should he receive the ball, and takes a late, half-hearted step as Haslem finishes his roll. Showing off the anticipatory instincts and high-level understanding that makes him so unique, James flicks a bullet to a now-open Bosh.

Mere mortals don’t see this pass, and even if they do don’t have the skill and strength to make it. But this is LeBron James, and the pass hits Bosh as he’s setting his feet and brings him right into his jumper. Biyombo tries in vain to contest the shot, but it’s for naught. Buckets.

Charlotte did almost everything right here, thwarting an aggressive James attack by downing the screen and reacting accordingly across the floor. But LeBron is decisive from the get-go, willingly goes away from the pick (and validates the “down” in the process, it should be noted) and – depending on your viewpoint – either goads Biyombo into the smallest mistake by an act of wizardry or, almost as impressive, recognized it and gets Bosh an open look.

The strategy worked. LeBron is good, though. Win some you lose some.

Here’s another situation where conceding the down by the defense is the best option.  Kemba Walker idles on the right wing, waiting for Bismack Biyombo to set a ball screen to the middle.  Kyrie Irving knows it’s coming so hops to halfcourt to get on the high side of the pick and prevent Walker from using it.  And he’s so sudden and decided in his movement, it’s clear downing here was Cleveland’s strategy all along.  Tyler Zeller, a rookie mind you, is defending Biyombo but recognizes the action late; as Walker crosses over from left to right and heads to the sideline, he’s just now sliding into proper position to support Irving’s movement.  He’s a 7-footer standing almost straight up and Walker is a jitterbug, so Zeller is immediately off balance and allows Walker to turn the corner to the baseline after a quick in-and-out dribble.

The Bobcats have already won here.  Zeller’s initial inaction combined with Walker’s awareness cost Cleveland an effective down, and now Charlotte has their best playmaker being chased by a player incapable of guarding him.  Irving can’t recover, either; he’s way too far from the ball to try and chase Walker down without yielding additional and more glaring mistakes from he and his teammates.  The Cavs, then, are forced to switch small to big as Walker dribbles under the basket and Zeller passes him off to Tristan Thompson.

So Cleveland has guarded Walker with three different players already this possession.  Naturally, they’re due for a breakdown of some kind.  After sizing up Thompson in the far corner, Walker makes his move to the baseline and draws the attention of the defense.  Irving, who switched onto Biyombo after Zeller swapped with Thompson, is communicating – poorly, it turns out – with Dion Waiters as Walker probes in the corner.  Gerald Henderson, Waiters’ man, cut across the paint from the left wing a couple seconds earlier and stands near Biyombo.

Irving and Waiters, not exactly known for their defense, get lost sorting through their own issues as Walker gets past Thompson.  The diminutive Walker doesn’t have a shot, but his penetration yields more movement from his teammates and Waiters, predictably, gets lost in the shuffle.  Walker finds a wide open Henderson in the mid-corner and Waiters can’t correct his false step quickly enough for an effective contest.

It was complicated, convoluted and prolonged, but Charlotte got a high-percentage shot because Walker saw the initial breakdown on the ball screen and went away from the pick.  He took advantage from there, forced multiple switches and finally created an easy look for Henderson.

On the hoof, it’s easy to assume the defense wins when a player doesn’t use a ball screen.  But in the NBA, offenses have secondary and tertiary options for every action the defense gives them or forces them into.  It’s no different with picks-and-rolls that get rejected by the ballhandler; whether the dribbler finishes the play or creates for a teammate, players are smart enough to know how to react best to their team’s advantage when the ball goes away from the initially planned direction.  And with teams downing screens all the more often, offensive players are only growing more comfortable with how to exploit the small missteps that can doom that strategy.

From a defensive standpoint, then, a player refusing a screen is just as dangerous as a player using it.  Unless the primary defenders are totally sound and the rest of the defense is on the string they create, breakdowns will ensue regardless.  And in some cases the ballhandler is so talented even that may not be enough.  The pick-and-roll, even as teams learn new and better ways to defend it, is still the most dangerous play in basketball; that it remains so as it appears going away from a screen renders it useless, is a testament to the vast skill and understanding of today’s creators.


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  1. […] and kicks off a side pick-and-roll. The Clippers, as most teams try to do with side pick-and-rolls, down it, trying to force the ball-handler back toward the […]

  2. […] sequence by “icing” the pick and forcing Curry away from the middle.  That’s a popular play against pick-and-rolls these days, a strategy made most famous by Tom Thibodeau-coached defenses that’s now wide-spread. […]

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