The art of the entry pass
If a PG and a big man have five key steps down, a simple pass becomes a work of art
Great things are done by a series of small things brought together." -- Vincent van Gogh
Any of the NBA's great thinkers (or at least its low-post scorers and whiteboard wizards) would tell you, if the painting thing hadn't worked out for V-Gogh, he would have cut it quite nicely as a big-man coach.
Good low-post play is the result of many little things coming together in a big way. An effective offense begins with penetration, and the simplest way to get the ball close to the hoop is with a crisp, accurate entry pass. Sounds simple, but throwing the ball from the perimeter into the post is a complex, synergistic relationship between two players who must react to shifting surroundings and execute quickly and precisely to manipulate the defense. It's no coincidence that the masters of this dying art, the Los Angeles Lakers, are the reigning NBA champs. So, how can the rest of the league make their entry to that next level? By following these five steps:
Commit to the post
Most coaches would love to feed the post on every possession. "It makes your team harder to guard," says Dallas Mavericks assistant Dwane Casey. "Real versatility is having the option to punch it inside effectively, but it seems to be the hardest thing to get."
That's because at lower levels, tall kids are working on dribble moves and 20-foot jumpers. Battling under the boards is the equivalent of being a faceless NFL lineman. It's a dirty, thankless job where players grab and shove for very little reward. "Handling the ball 20 feet from the basket is more glamorous," says Los Angeles Clippers assistant Marc Iavaroni. "That's how players want to play."
Translation: Where's the incentive to bang like Barkley when you can drain like Dirk?
Without traditional post players, NBA coaches have shifted strategies to fit resources. "You've got some guys coming into the league without particular skills because they're being taught to play entirely different positions," says Hall of Fame power forward Kevin McHale.
You can probably guess what this means for entry passers. With back-to-the-basket scorers becoming an endangered species, "making a good post feed is the toughest thing for a young player to do," says new Golden State Warriors coach Keith Smart. Unless coaches emphasize interior scoring -- when drafting, in practice -- learning to feed the post is meaningless.
Find the sweet spot
For the proud few who still venture into the lane, location is key. Before a guard can contemplate a pass, he needs a target, and establishing position is a grind, particularly because bigs want the ball in a specific area, typically the low block.
Comfort zones vary from player to player, though. Amar'e Stoudemire likes to post up close to the wing while others, such as Nowitzki and Antawn Jamison, prefer the midpost (halfway between the block and the elbow), where there's more room to operate in either direction. If a player needs one dribble to set up his jump hook, catching the ball somewhere that requires two bounces can upset his entire rhythm. "As I'm coming down the court, the main thing I'm thinking about is getting to my sweet spot," Magic center Dwight Howard says. But that can't happen immediately. Most teams try to deliver the ball into the post with 12 to 14 seconds left on the shot clock. If a big man arrives before the guard is ready to look inside, he can't hold his ground long enough. Get there too late, and the passing lane will disappear. So a big has to move in harmony with the ballhandler. One trick is to establish initial position a foot deeper than the actual sweet spot. This is subtly brilliant because refs typically allow a defender one honest push before calling a foul, so rather than fighting back, a player like Howard can use that force to end up exactly where he wants. When the timing is right, the next step becomes that much sweeter.
Create the angle
While his big works for position, a ballhandler is busy setting up the delivery. The ideal entry point is on the wing, free throw line extended, but behind the three-point arc. Spacing is key: If the big is forced to kick the ball back out, the passer should be in perfect position to step into a jumper before the D recovers. That's why teams want shooters making this pass, preferably ones who can see over the defense. Poor shooters present no threat and allow an on-ball defender to sag off, cutting off the passing lane and making a double-team easier. But that doesn't mean bricklayers can't handle the burden of the entry pass. They just need another skill to catch the defender leaning. "Fake one way, pass another," says Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who utilizes a two-handed, over-the-head pump fake that resembles a soccer throw-in.
Quicksilver guards like Boston's Rajon Rondo set up passes because they are a threat to drive to the basket. Rondo's ability to change direction off the dribble keeps defenders honest. "The goal," says Rondo, "is to get your man off-balance." Unlike a lot of guards, good shooters especially, Rondo gives his bigs plenty of time to get position, so long as he can keep his dribble alive. No matter how hard a big might work to get open, the pass has to be made at the guard's discretion, and that can't happen until he finds the right angle.
Make the entry
With the big man camped out in his sweet spot and the passing angle as smooth as a bowling lane, it's time to go to work. Guards love big targets -- particularly a hand held high. "I like to be able to see the palm of their hand," says Magic point guard Jameer Nelson. Other times, a big will offer instruction. Dwight Howard, for example, tells his teammates to throw the ball at his face. The key is hitting these targets dead-on. If a guard drops the ball too short and the post player has to step forward, the play grinds to a halt. "There's nothing worse," says Mavericks center Tyson Chandler. "Now you've got to fight for position all over again while the shot clock is running down."
A bounce pass looks flashier, but it's slower and tougher to catch, so the best entries come in high. But the passer can't throw the ball too high, a mistake made by ballhandlers who don't space the floor properly or who are guarded by larger defenders. That's why bigs prefer taller post feeders. Howard's all-time favorite was Hedo Turkoglu, who, at 6-foot-10, was tall enough to see over defenders and was such a good shooter that he demanded attention. "Hedo knew exactly where to throw the ball and what I was going to do before I did it," says Howard, who claims their trick was that Turkoglu always aimed for the top of the backboard square.
"That's one benefit of all these bigs with perimeter skills," McHale admits. "You've got good passers who can see over the defense."
Finish the play
The ideal entry pass leads to a quick bucket, and no one is better at using angles to get into position for an easy deuce than Tim Duncan. There's just one caveat: "It requires the most perfect, pinpoint pass you can throw," says Spurs guard George Hill. But it's not just about a catch-and-score. The entry pass can also initiate an offensive sequence that may result in a variety of positive outcomes, often two or three passes down the line. No NBA team understands this better than the Lakers, who utilize a "true pivot," someone who runs the offense from the post like a point guard. Without a proper entry pass, the entire system breaks down. But when it works, it's a thing of beauty.
Witness Game 7 of last June's NBA Finals. With just over six minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Kobe Bryant stood several feet behind the three-point line and flipped a two-handed pass to Pau Gasol in his sweet spot -- the right midpost. As Bryant cut through the lane, Gasol worked Kevin Garnett back with two deceptive dribbles that lured Rondo away from his man, Derek Fisher, who slid over to the spot Kobe previously held. Gasol zipped the ball back out to a wide-open Fisher, who launched a rainbow three that splashed through the net and tied the game at 64. The Lakers never trailed again, and it all started with Bryant's pinpoint entry pass -- a pass that didn't even count as an assist. "A pass like that is something people might not notice," Fisher says. "But doing it the right way is the key to what we do."
It was a great outcome resulting from a series of small things. Or, you might say, a work of art.
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