Beating Miami’s trapping pick-and-roll defense isn’t particularly easy. It requires the right and pinpoint passes, secondary penetration and very skilled players. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Indiana Pacers didn’t try to beat the trap so much as use its momentum against itself. Using Roy Hibbert as a screener, he rolled into deep weak side post position when the ball rotated on the perimeter. Even so, Indiana wasn’t all that successful; defense owned that series.
In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, San Antonio’s attack dismantled Miami. Don’t be fooled by their 41.7% shooting for the game; there were plenty of missed open threes and other points left on the floor. More telling were the Spurs turnovers, or lack thereof. Four, in total. For a team that uses its turnover-creating defense to initiate transition offense, Miami found itself in a half-court battle. So in a sense, San Antonio’s offense somewhat neutralized Miami’s. But the game seemed to have pace, right? And it did, just not in a total possessions sense. The Spurs made a concerted effort to push the ball up the floor on offense and initiate its sets early in the shot clock. At best, this led to transition opportunities. At worst, it helped to offset Miami’s pick-and-roll trapping pressure.
What Went Right For San Antonio?
First, a quick note – this isn’t new in any way, but just a quirky favorite thing of mine: On nearly every San Antonio possession, most players touch the ball. Often times the set calls for a simple pick-and-roll. But to set it up, Tony Parker will enter the ball to the wing. The wing player will then swing it to a big man at the top of the key, who will continue the reversal back to Parker on the other side of the floor. Only then will Parker initiate the pick-and-roll with the big.
Most simply, this got Tony Parker, and therefore his defender, on the move. Defending the pick-and-roll after running and stopping short leads to less explosive trapping. But on a simpler, coachspeak level, there’s also the fact that three players touch the ball when only one really needs to.
Anyway: what did San Antonio adjust, schematically, to handle Miami? Nothing, really. Their sets were largely the same. But the slight change – and an important one – was more slipping of the pick-and-roll. And that was the fundamental offensive theme: give the ball-handler options off the trap. Whether it was Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter, the big man was turned around and ready to receive the ball after making little to no contact on the screen. Even if he did hold the screen for a beat, he made sure to pivot and open up as quickly as possible.
But the key, of course, is Tony Parker. He’s arguably the best ball-handler in the game, and particularly adept at keeping his dribble alive no matter what. By slipping the P&R, San Antonio essentially baited Miami into trapping. Yet they’re also trusting Tony Parker to simply out-dribble it or throw the right pass before it can pounce. Of course, it didn’t always work: Miami got in their fair share traps and blew up plenty of San Antonio plays. But their relative success against Miami was much higher than any other team we’ve seen in these playoffs.
Now back to that point about pushing the pace: by moving the ball up the floor before Miami’s defense was totally prepared, the man guarding the ball usually need more time to react and spring the trap.
1) See here, with Dwyane Wade. He’s backpedaling as Manu Ginobili jogs the ball up the floor. The moment Ginobili reaches the three-point line, a trailing Tim Duncan jumps in for the P&R. Except Duncan completely slips it, leaving little time for the backpedaling Wade to pivot and leap forward.
Notice how Wade is still transferring his weight to explode forward while Ginobili moves away from him. Yes, this is very slight. But the point is this: in that split second when there’s actionable space between Bosh and Wade, Ginobili manages to sling a pass right through them to an open Tim Duncan at the free throw line – who, remember, doesn’t roll all the way to the rim, but turns almost immediately. In a game with such aggressive trapping and active hands, San Antonio needs every miniscule advantage it can muster. And of course this is also a function of how effective a passer Manu Ginobili (and Tony Parker, for that matter), can be. But catching Wade before he’s completely set and geared up for the pick-and-roll gives San Antonio the slight edge it needs.
San Antonio, therefore, has a three-on-two, and Duncan is easily able to find Kawhi Leonard for a wide open three-pointer.
2) Here’s another San Antonio wrinkle, this time geared towards creating space with two screens by the same player. (We know it’s intentional, and not mere accident, as SB Nation’s Mike Prada shows it has been used before.) First we have Tim Duncan picking off Mario Chalmers, but mostly just showing and slipping. Miami, as per usual, engages in a double team. Parker, however, keeps his dribble alive until Chris Bosh finally decides to recover.
Notice how Chris Bosh is now scrambling to recover. It’s at this point that Tim Duncan, who’s now at the free throw line, jolts forward to set another screen on Chalmers. Except this time, Bosh isn’t quite ready to explode forward. Bosh’s momentum is used against him, and Duncan is able to more cleanly set a pick.
This time Duncan gets a piece of Chalmers, leaving Parker one-on-one against Bosh. Though Chalmers falls, leaving Duncan open on the pick-and-pop, the concept is successful regardless. Bosh is laying back instead of trapping because he could not get there in time. Had Chalmers slid over the pick and raced towards Parker – as he’s supposed to – Duncan would have been available at the top of the key anyway. Therefore, the result is the same. Dwyane Wade pinches in too far to help on Duncan, and Danny Green is open for a three. Now in real time:
3) This time, semi-transition. Mario Chalmers is completely ready for Tiago Splitter’s screen. But Chris Bosh is just a hair late, and Splitter rolls into space instead of the rim. Parker, being Parker, hits him with a beautiful pass in that ever-so-momentary window, and Splitter manages to finish.
But transition pick-and-roll slips don’t just make things difficult for the trappers; help side defenders aren’t quite in position to rotate and recover. Check out LeBron James, who’s barely in the paint as the pass to Splitter is being made:
Though he manages to make the shot a bit more difficult, his feet aren’t set and he mostly just tries to avoid contact and the subsequent and-one.
4) Here’s another common San Antonio set – though this one doesn’t particularly feature the slip. This one is a Ginobili special, in which he throws his signature cross-court, one-handed whip pass after a double screen. With flawless execution, this play can actually prove to be quite effective regardless of what Miami does.
What happens is this: as Ginobili comes off the double screen, Norris Cole trails as Bosh prepares to step up for the double team. Matt Bonner pops to the wing; Tim Duncan rolls to the hoop. It now becomes Shane Battier’s responsibility to check Duncan, while Wade steps up from the corner on Bonner.
Ginobili hits Bonner as only he can do, and Wade steps up. Now, this is part of what makes Miami so effective: because Bonner bobbles the ball for just a second, Battier is able to peel off Duncan and contest Danny Green’s three-pointer once Bonner swings it to the corner.
Still, the concept works like a charm. Expect to see more of this set in future games.
There were also traditional post-up isolations for Tim Duncan that proved problematic for Miami. Whether it was Chris Andersen or Udonis Haslem or whoever else, Duncan dominated in the post. San Antonio sprinkled in these isolations just enough to keep Miami off-balance and its defense guessing, but not so much that they could hone in and make any serious and lasting adjustments.
What About Miami?
Miami’s offense wasn’t all that terrible. LeBron James attacked the rim and created open looks for his team. Both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were active and involved, even if Chris Bosh might fancy himself a bit too much of a stretch four these days. The ball moved, everyone got touches. Sure, LeBron James only scored 18 points. But he was setting up secondary penetration and racking up (hockey) assists. From San Antonio’s perspective, his scoring was down by design. They clogged the paint with bodies and dared Miami’s weaker shooters to jack shots. In the first half, Miami’s 6-15 from three-point range kept them afloat. In the second half, those shots stopped falling (2-10).
But that’s only a part of the story, of course: what was particularly troubling was the Heat’s lack of sustained post-up play from LeBron James. Towards the end of the third quarter, he created four quality shots, whether for himself or teammates, on four post-ups. San Antonio chose to leave Leonard on an island, with only the occasional defender pinching in.
When he did barrel towards the paint, San Antonio collapsed. But being the passer that he is, LeBron managed to find three-point shooters twice (Allen and Chalmers).
Here’s where he hits Chalmers:
All in all, this was still a tight game. But San Antonio missed a ton of wide open shots, and the margin of victory probably could have been a bit greater. Should the series continue with this type of play by both teams, San Antonio will roll. But we’d be foolish to count out Miami just like that – expect some Game 2 adjustments to handle San Antonio’s pick-and-roll slips.