Breaking down the pick-and-roll
The Phoenix Suns run more pick-and-roll action than any team in the NBA. They run it against zone defense and man-to-man, and they run several variations of it, with names like "drag," "double-drag," "step-up," "angle," "21-series" and "fist-up."
They run it on just about every possession. And if they hope to even the Western Conference finals series with the Los Angeles Lakers, they will have to run it to perfection Wednesday night.
So how exactly does the pick-and-roll work? And how should the Lakers best defend it?
Let's break it down:
The Suns tend to favor the high pick-and-roll, the most popular pick-and-roll play at the NBA level. On the play, you have a ball handler out beyond the 3-point arc, a screener at the top of the key (usually the 5), and then your 2, 3 and 4 are flattened out along the baseline.
Phoenix also often relies on the spread pick-and-roll. In this action, your ball handler and screener (your 5) are at the top of the key and your 2, 3 and 4 are spaced out behind the 3-point line. The ball handler and the screening big can work at various angles looking for paths to the basket, while the other three offensive players are spaced out and ready for kick-out passes and shot opportunities.
1. THE BALL HANDLER
Before executing the pick-and-roll, the ball handler must somehow create separation between himself and his defender.
With a live ball in his hand, this can be a simple move with a cross-over step (stepping with the foot that is closest to the screener), the ball defender will move and react, the ball handler will then step back, creating separation as he dribbles to the screen. With a live dribble, the ball handler drives it hard left, uses a pull-back dribble, crosses the ball to his right hand, which creates separation as he dribbles to receive the screen. In either situation, if the defense does not react, the ball handler drives by him and gets to the rim, or kicks out to a shooter if a helpside defender leaves his man to stop the ball.
2. THE SCREENER
As a coach, I've always taught the screener to body up on the ball handler's defender. We don't want the big setting the screen to screen air we want him to screen a body! The screener needs to come to a low and wide jump stop, and ideally he'll have his back to the rim. If the screener's back is facing the sideline, the defender can go under the screen and beat the ball handler to the spot.
3. THE DECISIONS
When coming off the screen the ball handler looks to take at least two dribbles before making a decision. Most young or inexperienced lead guards come off the screen thinking pass first and score second. For a savvy veteran like Steve Nash, the aim is to come off the shoulder and hips of the screener and, after that second dribble, think score. The pick-and-roll is run for the ball handler and he should come off the screen with two aggressive dribbles thinking, in sequence:
• Do I have a direct-line drive to the rim?
• Do I pull up for a midrange jumper?
• Do I hit my big rolling to the rim?
• Do I penetrate and kick it out to one of my shooters?
• Do I have a skilled big that can pick and pop?
After the initial pick-and-roll is executed, and the ball handler has come off the screen with two aggressive dribbles and the screener has rolled, the key is roll-and-replace action.
Remember the big setting the screen probably isn't your best jump shooter, but the weakside big's defender may have to help on the roll and the weak-side big can then replace up near the initial point of the high pick-and-roll, looking for an open jump shot.
The Lakers will see plenty of the Suns' high pick-and-roll set called "drag" in the Western Conference finals. They will go to it when they don't hit Amare Stoudemire on the rim run for a layup or a quick post feed (something they call their "punch" action). Picture the ball handler coming down the right side of the floor, with his center posting up on the right (strongside) block, the 2 in the right corner and the 3 in the left corner. The trailing 4 will get below the level of the ball and sprint to screen the ball handler's defender with a jump stop. The ball handler will have to survey and take what the defense gives him.
Now how to defend it?
Communication is critical. As soon as your man starts to set a screen you must yell, "screen left!" or "screen right!" The defender guarding the basketball is out on an island by himself, focused on the ball. His teammate needs to remove the element of surprise and direct the ball defender as to the location of a screener.
2. BODY UP
When the defender of the ball handler hears "screen!" he will be able to close the distance on the ball handler, body up his man and force him into the screen. Until that verbal, he remains in an on-the-ball defensive stance (arm's distance away), with live feet and active hands containing the dribble.
3. SHRINK THE COURT
While the above is happening on the ball, the weakside big and the two corner defenders should form a defensive triangle with the big in the middle of the lane and the two other defenders outside the lane line, but even with the corner men they are guarding. If the two corner defenders get too high, their men can just cut behind them for a dunk. It is imperative while on defense that you see your man and the ball at all times.
Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum need to "show," up one step above the screen, in order to redirect the ball handler, forcing him to come off higher or wider than he would like to gain separation and angles toward the basket. You're not sliding with him, you're flashing and harassing, buying time for your teammate to get back in front of the ball handler.
The ball defender will then go over the screen and beat the dribbler to his next dribbling spot. Based on personnel, the shooting range of the ball handler and the location where the screen was set, the ball defender decides whether to go over or under the screen.
The screener rolling must be picked up by the weakside big who has shifted to the paint to body him up. The big who showed defensively then sprints back to find the offensive weakside big who is replacing while the strongside roll is taking place.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Suns play a fast-paced transition game whenever possible, of course, and getting back to trouble their fast break is crucial to defending them. But when Phoenix settles into its half-court offense, the Lakers' willingness to collaborate on a team-defense approach, beginning with communication and ending with active weakside help, will go a long way toward deciding this series.
Coach Dave Miller is a former NBA and collegiate assistant basketball coach. He was on Byron Scott's staff with the New Orleans Hornets in 2006.