While their series against the Boston Celtics saw the Knicks fall into isolation hell, they’ve mostly stuck with their spread pick-and-roll identity against the Pacers in the second round. The way Indiana defends the pick-and-roll, though, has kept the Knicks from breaking out offensively. Indiana has their bigs sink back into the lane to corral the ball handler near the free throw line, while the players guarding spot-up shooters on the perimeter stay close to their man so as to not allow kick out passes for easy jumpers.
It’s always going to be tough to find open looks against the best defense in the league, but the Knicks found a few cracks in the second half of Game 5 by turning to multi-screener pick-and-roll plays. In the third quarter, they initiated these sets out of horns, first by entering the ball to Carmelo Anthony in the high post.
After entering the ball to Melo in the high post, Felton cleared out to the left wing. The action was designed to make it look as though this would be an elbow isolation for Melo against Paul George, a very common play for the Knicks.
But, as he did in the last few games of the Celtics series, Melo immediately wheeled around and gave the ball back to Felton on the wing. He then set the first of two screens for Felton dribbling back toward the middle of the court.
DJ Augsutin is already way out of position here. He has two options: go under the screens and try to meet Felton in the lane, or go over the top and chase him from behind, hoping George or Hibbert can knock him off his path or contest his shot. He chooses the latter option, meaning George or Hibbert has to help redirect Felton’s path to the basket.
George has to deal with the threat of a Melo jumper, so he’s not going to be the guy to disrupt Felton’s drive – it has to be Hibbert. As the play starts, Hibbert is in good position to do just that; he’s right at the free throw line, just as he’s been for nearly all of New York’s pick-and-rolls throughout the series.
As Felton hits the lane, though, Hibbert retreats. Chandler is rolling hard to the rim for what seems like the first time all series, and Hibbert knows that it’s his responsibility to get back to his own man because Indiana likes to stay home on shooters. However, here, David West sinks way off Iman Shumpert in the corner to tag Chandler in the lane, possibly due to a coverage change dictated by the multi-screener pick-and-roll, or possibly just because he noticed a threat closer to the basket and decided to help.
In either case, Indiana now has two players guarding Chandler – who hasn’t been a serious offensive threat all series – and none on Shumpert (a 40.2% three point shooter) in the corner. Hibbert’s retreat also allows Felton to get deeper into the lane. He’s able to get a floater over Hibbert before the big man can seriously contest it because he’s still dropping back and worrying about Chandler.
On New York’s next possession, they go right back to the same play. Here though, Augustin tries to cheat and cut off Felton’s driving lane before he even starts his drive, and gets caught massively out of position when Felton crosses back over and rejects both screens. This allows Felton to get deep into the heart of the defense, creating a two-on-one with Chandler against Hibbert.
As a result, Lance Stephenson has to abandon Pablo Prigioni on the wing, and Felton throws a whip pass across his body to Pablo for the open three.
On consecutive plays, the Knicks were able to get the Pacers to abandon one of their core pick-and-roll defense principles, and they turned it into a basket both times.
You can’t just run the same exact play every time down the court, but the Knicks pocketed the idea of multi-screener pick-and-rolls, and of attacking Augustin’s weak pick-and-roll defense in particular, for later in the game. They opened the fourth quarter running the same set on consecutive plays. It’s still a double pick-and-roll, but the initial action is a bit different.
The Knicks against start out in horns, only this time Carmelo moves from the high post to the corner, JR Smith replaces Prigioni in the opposite corner, and it’s Kenyon Martin and Chris Copeland in the high post slots. Felton dribbles left off a brush screen from Martin, getting him into the same position on the wing as he was in the previous double pick-and-roll sets.
Martin then wheels around and sets a screen for Copeland at the free throw line, and Copeland comes up and sets the first of two screens for Felton dribbling back toward the middle of the court, effectively kicking off the same action that worked so well for the Knicks in the third quarter. (Note: I initially thought this specific screen-the-screener, then double screen action was a new one from the Knicks, but I asked Copeland after the game and he assured he they’d run it before. I haven’t been able to find video of it yet though.)
They ran it again on the next possession and generated an open three point look for Copeland, but Martin committed an offensive foul trying to establish rebounding position before the shot even went up.
After Chandler and Shumpert checked into the game for Martin and Copeland, the Knicks went back to this set on three consecutive possessions and got two more baskets (including a Chandler dunk that almost missed) out of it. The play went the same way; Felton dribbles left off a screen from Chandler, Chandler sets a screen for Shumpert, who sets the first of two screens for Felton dribbling back toward the middle of the court, Chandler rolls to the rim, Shumpert stays outside for a kickout.
Eventually, the Pacers wised up and had Tyler Hansbrough jump out into Felton’s path before he came around the first screen. So the Knicks just worked the ball around until they found a match-up they liked (Carmelo in the post against Sam Young), and got a pull-up jumper for their troubles.
The one time the Knicks didn’t generate a great look out of this set, they unveiled some further action on the back side that could pay off if they run it again.
After setting his screen for Felton, Shumpert immediately set a pin-down screen on Sam Young, which freed Melo up for a second on the wing – more than enough time to get off a shot or throw a pump fake at a closing defender. Felton had already decided he was going to take the jumper though, so the option wasn’t pursued.
All that said, the effectiveness of this play changes drastically if it’s George Hill (an actual competent NBA defender) guarding Felton rather than Augustin (who appeared to be on bath salts). Hill’s length has been huge in keeping Felton out of the lane, and he can navigate screens much better than Augustin can. The most important thing about this set isn’t who takes the shot, or from where, but that it presents multiple appealing options against such a stingy defense. The Knicks found cracks that they hadn’t previously been able to open, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them go back to this well.