One of my favorite college basketball blogs is a site called The Mikan Drill, a site that looks at the Xs and Os of the college game. Something that they have been doing over there since the season has ended was Season Leftovers, looking at some great sets over the course of the college season. An idea so good, that I decided to bring it over here during the NBA offseason.
As I mentioned in the introduction to part one, defensive strategy late in games is just as important as offensive strategy. That being said, it is something that is often overlooked. When a late game possession doesn’t result in a score, everyone is usually looking at why the offense didn’t score. Sometimes, it is just as simple as there was really good defense being played.
Suns Get the Stop They Need with Smart Rotations
Playing the Suns on the road and trailing by two points, the Jazz came out of a timeout looking to at least tie the game. What coach Tyrone Corbin came up with was a pretty solid quick hitter (with just seven seconds left, it needed to be quick-hitting), and at first, it looked like it was going to result in a wide open layup or dunk.
However, a great heads-up play and rotation by the Suns’ two weakside defenders prevented the Jazz from getting the game-tying basket and helped secure the win.
As the ball goes to the trigger man, you have Paul Millsap at the elbow and Deron Williams on the block. We see this setup on the sideline from plenty of NBA teams, and usually what happens is the big at the elbow sets a screen for the PG, who runs off of it to get the ball at the top of the key. The Jazz switch things around and have Williams set a backscreen for Millsap.
Williams sets an effective screen and Millsap comes off of it with space to operate. At this point, it looks like the play is going to work, as Millsap has plenty of room to move with the entire area around the rim wide-open.
However, both Marcin Gortat and Steve Nash make terrific reads. Gortat dives to the strong side block, anticipating Millsap getting the basketball. As this happens, Steve Nash rotates over and gets in front of Gortat’s man, Al Jefferson, and the rim.
The Suns’ rotation is giving away one pass, but the one they are giving up is pretty difficult to make with Gortat cutting off the baseline. And if somehow the pass is able to get made, Nash should have enough time to rotate back and challenge the shot.
Millsap tries to make that pass, Gortat gets his hands on it, and Nash is able to secure the basketball after the deflection. Here is the stand in real time:
This is just a great read by both Gortat and Nash. Gortat comes over and provides the help as Nash picks up his man. They understand that to make a rotation like this they have to give up something, so they give up a real tough pass, and it results in the turnover.
Toronto Stops Oklahoma City’s Bread-and-Butter Late
One of the things that the Oklahoma City Thunder struggled with offensively late in games was not having a “go-to” set. One of the closest things they had to this type of play was a Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook pick-and-roll. With 37 seconds left in a tie game against the Toronto Raptors, the Thunder tried to run this play. Despite Toronto being terrible defensively, the Thunder came away empty, and this is because the Raptors defended the pick-and-roll perfectly.
As Russell Westbrook brings the basketball up along the wing, Kevin Durant gets in position to set a screen for him. Westbrook uses the screen to take the ball to the middle of the court.
The reason why a Durant/Westbrook pick-and-roll is so dangerous is because you can’t hedge too far off of Westbrook because you are leaving Durant open for the jumper. However, you can’t just ignore the ball handler, because it is Russell Westbrook and he can get into the lane in a split second.
The one weakness in this play is Westbrook’s shooting ability, and the Raptors used that knowledge to come up with a creative way to defend the pick-and-roll. DeMar DeRozan, the man covering Durant, takes a step back creating a lane for Jose Calderon, the man covering Westbrook, to shoot through.
As Westbrook comes off of the screen and through the lane, Jose Calderon is in position to play defense. The key to this defensive strategy is that there is no need to hedge now, meaning that DeRozan doesn’t have to leave Kevin Durant open. As Westbrook attacks, Amir Johnson also steps up, providing help defense.
Westbrook takes off. Since Calderon was able to get through the screen pretty easily, he is right there, challenging the shot. This forces Westbrook to bring the basketball down and double-clutch.
The double-clutch allows Johnson to get up in the air and challenge the shot. Westbrook doesn’t let go of the shot until he is on the way down, and he ends up missing it. The Raptors secure the rebound, and they now have the basketball with a chance to take the lead. Here is the play in real time:
The Thunder did the Raptors a favor and made the pick-and-roll easier to defend by running it on the wing, where there is only one direction that Westbrook can go. At the top of the key, Westbrook can go either way. This lets the Raptors, and specifically Amir Johnson, know where the help needs to be and he gets there well ahead of time.
That being said, this is still a great defensive play by both DeRozan and Calderon. Every once in a while you see a team try this pick-and-roll defense but they screw it up with improper timing. That doesn’t happen here and the Raptors are able to get a stop that helps them pick up a win against a quality opponent.