The Gold Standard
PJ Tucker bows his head, sighs, and explains the horror about to hit him throughout what ended up a four-game sweep: the LeBron James-Kyrie Irving pick-and-roll, the most dangerous version of the league's most dangerous play, executed with equal cruelty regardless of which superstar handles the ball.
It's almost worse when Irving inverts the usual paradigm and screens for a bigger player -- the world's best player, as it happens.
"Most point guards, you don't worry that much when they screen," Tucker says. "But Kyrie might be the best scorer on the team." Tucker will try to scoot under every Irving pick, daring LeBron to hoist jumpers, but that's easier said than done; if Irving chips him, Tucker knows he is toast. "If LeBron gets even a tiny angle on you, it's over," Tucker says. "He's at the rim."
What about the reverse, with LeBron screening for Irving? Tucker will be guarding James, meaning his job will be to leap out at Irving so the point guard can't turn the corner. "I have to make Kyrie dribble backward to give my guard a chance," Tucker says. "But you don't want LeBron rolling open to the rim, neither." One final sigh. "It's a nightmare."
Players and coaches discuss the LeBron-Irving pick-and-roll as if it brings actual death and terror.
"LeBron will lay you out," says Mike Budenholzer, head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and a man who sounds like he's sick of thinking about this. "Kyrie sets a good screen. They know all the tricks. They are a nightmare."
"It's lethal," Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors head coach, says two days after Cleveland's sweep.
A few days earlier, Ty Lue, the Cleveland Cavaliers' head coach: "It has become a lethal part of our game."
The play represents Cleveland's best hope of wearing out Stephen Curry, and repeating as champions. Neither participant expected the Irving-James pick-and-roll to become so central. The wing-point guard combo isn't new, but it has never been so prominent across the league. "It wasn't a popular play when I got into the NBA," Irving says.
It is a product of rule changes that nudged the NBA toward a flowing drive-and-kick game, and a way to counter how defenses adjusted to that style of offense. The traditional pick-and-roll, between a point guard and a big man, sliced apart the league as teams stationed more 3-point shooters around it. Classic pick-and-roll defenses, it turns out, leave creases. The big man guarding the screener shifts over to contain the opposing point guard, allowing his original guy to roll behind him -- and forcing a third defender to dip into the paint. Zip the ball through those corridors, and you will get an open shot.
Traditionalist coaches, desperate for a fix, experimented with a strategy they once loathed: switching all over the floor. Switch that first pick-and-roll, and no other defender has to move. No creases open. More coaches concluded the cost of switching -- a size mismatch - was lower than the cost of scrambling in help rotations.
The cost seemed low because those big man screeners weren't as threatening in the post anymore, even against little guys. The Mike D'Antoni-infused pick-and-roll era redefined desired skill sets. Goliaths didn't get the ball on the block as much. They were expected to set picks and roll hard to the rim. The other big man would spot up for 3s.
Fewer bigs could work with their backs to the basket. Wings slid up to power forward, so there might be little size difference between three defensive players: the shooting guard and both forwards.
Suddenly, the largest exploitable size gap came between point guards and wings. If you could engineer a switch between those two, you had something. The best wings became more dangerous post threats than big men. "Nowadays with all the stretch-4s," Lue says, "the wings are better post players."
The trend lines joined here: Engineer the mismatch that hurts most, and inflict pain. "You're not going to put Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in a pick-and-roll, because the switch won't matter," says Steve Kerr, the Golden State Warriors' head coach. "So teams pick the most vulnerable targets."
The play becomes even more important in the postseason, when elite defenses take away all the pretty motion-based stuff that works so well in January.
"When you can't score in conventional ways, that is the last place to go," Budenholzer says. "It almost feels like if you get to the playoffs and you don't have a 1-3 pick-and-roll, you're screwed."
You are never more screwed than when Irving and James catch a rhythm -- when they both download, with barely a nod, each way the defense might guard their duet, and prepare responses for every one of those strategies. They toy with opponents. They lure them into one response, only to hit them with the most devastating counter-punch.
"When you have two threats like us," James says, "it works wonders."
James smirks when noting defenders still duck under picks against him, inviting him to shoot jumpers. Irving's job as LeBron's screener is to prevent that, or sow so much confusion that defenders panic and abandon their principles. Irving sets some picks almost at the foul line, so that if defenders do concede jumpers, LeBron is in his comfort zone.
"His main job is to get a low as possible," James says.
Open jumpers are nice, but getting a little guy switched onto LeBron is Plan A. No matter how the game evolves, the Queen on the chessboard is still a bigger wing who can post up mismatches, draw help, and spray passes from a triple-threat position. That's why bigger point guards who can battle wings in the post without crisis-level help -- John Wall, Russell Westbrook, George Hill -- become more valuable in the playoffs, and why Boston is more stout on defense now without Isaiah Thomas.
LeBron can brutalize any switch, and the Cavs know how to generate them. Irving has mastered a creeping screen in which he hits LeBron's man and keeps pushing downhill, so that the victim can't shove his way back in front of James. Irving essentially forces a switch:
Is it legal? Irving laughs, "Hey, man, I learned it from watching our bigs."
It's hard for defenses to prepare when they don't know where the screen is coming from, or in what direction Irving will set it. Irving loves sneaking up from the baseline and setting a "flat screen," with his butt directly facing the hoop. James in that moment is like a penalty shooter in soccer: He waits for the defense to commit one way, and darts the other.
"When we run it flat and the defense jumps," Lue says, "it's over."
Irving is an expert at flipping picks back-and-forth until the defense cracks.
DeMarre Carroll sneaks under that second pick, but Kyle Lowry, Irving's man, ditches Irving to help on LeBron anyway. Great players instill panic. Carroll might be able to contain James, but it's LeBron freaking James with a tiny head start. Lowry worries, and his help ignites an unstoppable chain reaction.
"There is a human element in the mistakes," Tucker says. Part of that: Point guards are used to defending the other end of a pick-and-roll. Yank them outside their comfort zone, and they are vulnerable to indecision.
"We aren't taught to play that side of it," says Jason Kidd, Milwaukee's head coach. "There is always confusion, always a mistake."
Irving's Ph.D.-level trickery is impressive considering he didn't have much screen-setting experience before LeBron arrived. "We don't even practice it," Irving says. "It's all feel."
Screening is not a purely selfless act. Irving is a great shooter, and if his man lunges toward James for even a half-second, Irving pops open for a triple. "I always tell Kyrie," James says, "that a good screener gets the ball."
Irving senses when he can slip into vacant spaces for midrange shots:
Flip the play around, and defenders can't duck under LeBron screens; Irving will rain fire from deep. They can't switch, either. Opponents pivot back to traditional defenses, and that transforms LeBron into the league's most devastating roll man:
Defenses have counters, of course. They hide their point guards on JR Smith, so they can switch the LeBron-Irving dance. Brad Stevens toyed with a funky zone to hide Thomas. The Cavs have seen them all, and Smith has become a nifty partner for James.
Cleveland has sharpened this play for two years with an eye on Curry. "Kyrie's getting really good," James says. "And we're going to get better at it as he grows, and I continue to do what I do."
"Giannis has the same problem I had," Kidd says, laughing. "They are going to go under screens on him almost all the way to the rim to make him shoot."
Antetokounmpo is the closest potential facsimile to peak LeBron: a giant wing who lives at the rim, and lords over smaller guys in the post with the vision to fling passes anywhere. Switch a point guard onto him, and the Bucks will find something good:
Matthew Dellavedova is a mean screener, and Antetokounmpo developed a nice chemistry with Malcolm Brogdon. That play above is typical: Antetokounmpo streaks up the left side, and Brogdon sidles up from the baseline to blindside Antetokounmpo's man with a pick -- preferably a flat one, Kidd says, so the defense has no clue which way Antetokounmpo might go.
Brogdon's job is the same as Irving's: prevent Antetokounmpo's defender from sliding under. Surprise and deception are crucial. "He tries to get you with that step-up screen," says Tucker, who faced Milwaukee in the first round. "Everyone has that scouted now."
Defenders have to scoot under that pick clean. Antetokounmpo is so long and explosive, if Brogdon's screen makes even glancing contact, that is enough to spring him. "He needs one step," Kidd says, "and he's on top of the rim."
Defenders know that. They fear it. If Brogdon's defender sees the screen just clip Antetokounmpo's guy, he might sense a crisis, and leap away from Brogdon to double the Greek Freak -- even if he doesn't really have to. "Again, human nature," Tucker says. That could create a switch, or leave Brogdon, a 40 percent 3-point shooter, open from deep.
Brogdon isn't as fast or cutthroat as Irving. Defenses can close space on him, and force the Bucks to reset. He and Antetokounmpo are still learning, and blips of indecision kill possibilities.
That hurts even more when they swap roles, and Antetokounmpo screens for his point guards. Opponents don't fret about Brogdon or Dellavedova rampaging to the rim; Antetokounmpo's man generally stays home, confident someone else can quash a Brogdon/Delly slow-poke drive.
Antetokounmpo whiffs on too many picks, and is often content floating harmlessly toward the arc instead of rolling. He looked more aggressive when Thon Maker played center and spotted up in the corner -- uncluttering the lane.
Opponents neuter this by hiding their point guards on Tony Snell, and daring Milwaukee to use Snell as Antetokounmpo's partner -- the same role Smith assumes in a pinch for LeBron. Snell lacks Smith's dynamism.
Still: This is a developing weapon. "The beauty of what comes next is that Giannis will start knocking down shots," Kidd says. "What do you do with him then?"
Rondo is a physical screener. He loves a tangle. When Butler starts his drive, Rondo might slyly grab the arm of Butler's man for just a split second -- outside the sight line of any referee, of course -- to give Butler a head start.
That meshes well with one of Butler's habits: He loves faking toward picks, and then jetting away from them. That is an effective counter to the "go-under" strategy; Butler's defender sees the pick coming, assumes Butler will dribble around it, and prepares early to slide underneath. Butler catches them leaning:
Rondo is an expert at screening two defenders at once:
Switch in an emergency, and Butler drags a smaller defender into his office on the block. He has improved as a passer every season. Send help, and he'll hit the open man.
The degree of difficulty is just higher. Defenses double Butler without worrying about Rondo -- whether he pops for 3, or slithers into floater range. When Butler screens for Rondo, defenses duck under to almost absurd levels, conceding open Rondo floaters.
Still: It's great fun watching these guys work around their limitations.
The North -- For Now
Warning: Expect Kyle Lowry to change the subject when you ask about the James-Irving pick-and-roll. "You have to defend me and DeMar first," Lowry says. "I think we have one of the most dangerous combinations."
If they do, it's mostly because of Lowry's screening; Toronto almost never has DeRozan screen for Lowry, according to player-tracking data. That is fine with Lowry. "I've always loved screening," he says. "It's fun."
Lowry is a moving fire hydrant, adept at all the tricks that make it tough for defenders to slide under his screens -- including inching closer to the rim on second and third picks.
"You can scat under once," Casey says. "Do it again, and DeMar is in his wheelhouse."
Like Brogdon, Lowry loves skulking up from the baseline in semi-transition and slamming a defender who has no idea what's coming. Lowry is a gifted thespian, too. If he's running parallel with DeRozan, he might wave at a nonexistent teammate in the corner -- a con designed to trick Lowry's man into thinking he's about to screen for someone there, only for Lowry to U-turn and knock into DeRozan's guy.
Anything to manufacture a switch that leaves DeRozan with a size advantage.
Lowry has the flat screen down:
Poor T.J. McConnell guessed wrong.
The threat of Lowry bombing from 3 is what really makes this sing. If Lowry's man slides over to wall off DeRozan's drive, Lowry pops open for a catch-and-shoot look -- unless DeRozan's guy switches out to snuff that fire. Boom: switch accomplished. Pause for second thoughts, and you're dead. "All we need is that one half-second of the defense saying, 'Oh s---, do I switch or not?'" Casey says, "and someone is open."
The one flaw: DeRozan is not a natural playmaker. He holds the ball too long, and misses Lowry curling open. If DeRozan improves as a passer -- and Lowry returns to Toronto, not even close to a sure thing -- this play could become deadly.
The Looming Nightmare
Rivals assume the Warriors are keeping the Stephen Curry-Kevin Durant pick-and-roll under lock and key until they really need it. It is the only one of these combinations featuring two elite 3-point shooters. You cannot give either even a teensy window to fire. Stick to Durant as he screens for Curry, and Curry saunters free to the rim -- a super-duper version of how J.J. Barea has mooched off Dirk Nowitzki.
It should be unswitchable. Durant can shoot over point guards, and Curry dances around bigger players. Golden State's best lineups feature no safe non-Curry haven -- no Tony Snell -- where opposing point guards might hide.
Durant even brings a ton of reps from one of the best-ever such combinations. "Look at what KD and Russ [Westbrook] were doing" in Oklahoma City, James says. "Yeesh, that was difficult to guard, with Russ' ability to just zoom."
The Warriors haven't used it much. They may be concerned that putting their two centers at center stage doesn't leave enough shooting around them -- that help defenders can slough off everyone else and clog the lane. The most popular theory: Durant doesn't like to screen. Durant prefers to slip screens -- hoops parlance for approaching Curry as if to set a pick, but jetting away before making any contact. Smart teams know that, and assume Durant will veer off.
But slipping can be tactical, too. It's a good way to outfox switches; cut early, when the two defenders are mid-switch, and you'll get open. Durant will also do it when he spots his man leaning toward Curry, and the Warriors have crafted some quick-hitting actions to leverage that opening:
A quick slip can also force the very switch defenses wish to avoid:
A more likely explanation, aside from playing possum: Pounding pick-and-roll mismatches just isn't in the Warriors' DNA. It is not the way Steve Kerr wants to play. That may be changing a bit under assistant Mike Brown. Golden State dumped the ball to Durant in the post more against Utah, and they busted out an inverted Durant-Curry pick-and-roll -- with Curry screening -- several times in sweeping the Spurs.
"Steve isn't really into this much," Brown says. "He's more about spacing and movement -- and that's fantastic. I love Steve, and wherever I might go, I'm going to incorporate a lot of stuff he does. But in the playoffs, sometimes you have to attack a mismatch. When I need a bucket, that's what I'm going to do."
Kerr says the two coaches have talked recently about playing mismatch basketball in the right doses. "Mike is right about me, but I also recognize the need to do it more as defenses get tougher," Kerr says. "It's about finding the right balance between isolating when we need to, and keeping the flow that makes us who we are."
Other teams know what might be on the horizon.
"Oh, that one in Golden State?" Tucker asks. "It's coming. It's coming."