I’m not sure when the pick-and-roll was invented, but it was probably about three weeks after James Naismith hung a peach basket on a pole. It is among the most basic offensive actions a team can run and it has been a staple play of virtually every NBA team since the days of Bob Cousy. The reason: if run properly, it inevitably creates an advantage, at least temporarily, for the offense.
There are many ways to defend the pick-and-roll. None of them work. Again, the offense always gets an advantage and while different defensive strategies can limit that edge in various ways, vulnerabilities remain. So the goal for the two defenders involved in the play is to react to the screen and then recover quickly enough to ensure that both offensive players are corralled into areas where they can do the least damage.
In recent years, the prevailing defensive philosophy used against the pick-and-roll has been to blitz the ball handler and force him to give the ball up. I can’t say exactly when or why this became the norm, but it probably has to do with players like LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook being so adept at going by big men in zero second flat and splitting any soft double teams. Players in the 1980s weren’t doing it like they can.
Regardless of why, things done changed.
Tom Thibodeau is the leader of the new school. As an assistant in Boston and now as a head coach in Chicago, he has implemented this “swarm the pick-and-roll” strategy to help his teams play some of the best defense the sport has ever seen. It is the anti-thesis of passively reacting to what the offensive team wants to accomplish in the pick-and-roll. The defense becomes the aggressor, swarming the man with the ball and rotating help defenders to stop the roll man from catching a pass and scoring at the rim.
Throughout the first three games on their series against the Heat, the Pacers have not been doing this. They have instead done the exact opposite.
As the ball-handler (usually LeBron or Wade and sometimes Mario Chalmers) comes off the screen, the big man does not run at him hard. He is barely even showing at all actually. He is just hanging back and maintaining a pool-cue-length distance in between himself and the guy with the ball.
This accomplishes two things that fundamentally alter how the rest of the play will likely transpire. First, it makes it much harder for the ball-handler — no matter how fast and crafty he is as a penetrator — from getting all the way to the rim. The big man hanging back is essentially adopting a free safety mentality in which he won’t allow anyone to get past him. Of course, the penetrator can just try to go over or around, but especially when the defender is Roy Hibbert … good luck with that. He is 7’2″ and has been in a shot-blocking zone for weeks now.
The other key difference with this strategy is that it only involves four people in the action: the ball-handler, the screener and the two defenders covering them. When you use the Thibodeau-favored approach, you involve five (and really closer to 10) players in the play: the screener, the ball-handler, the two defenders who both blitz the ball-hander after the screen, and a help defender who must contain the roll man. When executed properly, this isn’t a problem. After the ball-handler gives the ball up to one of his open teammates, the defense just has to rotate quickly and precisely to cover up the exposure they created by doubling. With time, practice, smart players and a commitment to effort, Thibodeau and other teams have shown just how effective this can be. But it does always, at least temporarily, leave one man open.
Frank Vogel has no interest in doing that.
The Pacers’ coach is trying to minimize the impact that Miami’s role players have on this series. And since the main way they can change the tide of any game is by hitting threes, he certainly doesn’t want to use a containment strategy against LeBron and Dwyane (which he knows is generally futile anyway) that allows Mike Miller, Shane Battier and James Jones to sway this series.
So his defense is guarding pick-and-rolls two on two. As with any pick-and-roll defense, this still concedes an advantage to Miami. But it is simply one that the Heat — especially Dwayne Wade — have proven incapable of exploiting.
An overwhelming majority of the times that LeBron, Wade and Chalmers have dribbled off a high screen, they have found themselves open. The guy defending them is busy fighting through the screen and the big man, as previously mentioned, is hanging back five feet in “free-safety/rim protection” mode. So they are open. It’s just that they are open in a way that they are unaccustomed to being open. (Well, aside from Chalmers. I think he has been open for about 80% of the minutes he has ever been on an NBA court. Nothing new here for him.)
That has generally not deterred LeBron from being effective. He has still found many ways to score and create for teammates. Most impressively, he has resorted to a little running floater in the lane that I have hardly ever seen him take. It really is amazing. To deal with an unfamiliar way of being defended, he has basically created an entirely new weapon.
And it has been damn effective.
Seriously, we can’t overstate how impressive it is that LeBron has adapted this shot into his repertoire, basically on the fly over the past week. Guys like Mark Jackson, Tony Parker and Derrick Rose spent years perfecting a floater. Since a young age, they have faced the conundrum of being quick enough to get into the paint but sometimes too short to successfully challenge a shot-blocker at the rim. So they create a way to deal with that.
LeBron almost never has this problem.
But now, with the way Roy Hibbert is retreating, LeBron is not merely settling for a longer pull-up. He is continuing to advance the ball and getting a closer shot. A shot he has rarely ever taken. He is basically evolving as a player in a front of our eyes. The video above shows three made floaters. I believe there have been at least two others, if not three or four. It’s possible LeBron has scored more points this series on floaters than Mike Miller and Shane Battier have combined to score at all.
LeBron has also consistently found other ways to ensure that the Heat’s pick-and-roll attack — one of the most vital aspects of Miami’s offense — continues to be productive regardless of how it is defended.
Especially in the fourth quarter of Game 1, LeBron went to the pull-up jumper. If he and the other Heat players can consistently start knocking down that midrange shot, Vogel may have to consider mixing up his approach. But if you watch the whole clip above, you will see that it’s not purely pull-ups. LeBron has been crafty and patient in trying to find areas to score from. He loops around and dribbles into space on one shot. On the dump-off passes, notice how he hesitates right before making a pass, freezing the defender and giving his teammate that one extra half-second to dive into the open area. LeBron looks completely comfortable creating in space and just freelancing until the defense shows a weakness.
And on the last two plays in the clip, he just goes straight freight train, not giving a damn what type of defense the Pacers are trying. “Who Gon Stop Me, Huh” you can basically here him saying. The dunk after blowing by David West actually comes on one of the rare instances since the first half of Game 1 when Indiana sent a hard hedge at him after he came off the screen. But it helps show that LeBron wasn’t about to waste that opportunity.
Instead, he just laid waste to the rim.
In striking, baffling, puzzling contrast, Dwyane Wade has shown no such ability to adapt.
The video above is a horror flick for Heat fans.
Throughout the series, he has been confounded while coming off the screen with the ball. He has turned it over repeatedly, missed pull-up jumpers, missed floaters, missed layups, thrown poor passes and generally just been useless leading the pick-and-roll in all three games.
There really is no good way to explain exactly why such a talented player is having so much trouble making the right decision when he finds himself virtually unguarded dribbling off a screen. I this respect, two Wades are baffled.
But all postseason, including against the Knicks, Dwyane’s jumpshot has seemingly left him altogether. To me, this seems the most likely explanation: He has lost confidence in his jumper so he doesn’t want to settle for a mid-range shot and is now pressing. Instead of taking what he is given, he is forcing his drives further into the lane than Hibbert (or the other Indy retreating big) will permit him to do easily. And as he finds too much resistance, he is making hesitant, poor decisions. In the clip above, just look at how many little hiccups there are in his attack and how indecisive his actions generally look. LeBron’s hesitations, on the other hand, are measured, change-of-pace moves that help create more space to attack. Dwyanes hesitations just look like a guy who is clueless on what to do next.
I don’t want to get into an armchair psychiatrist discussion here (there is already too much of that being done while trying to analyze Dwyane’s way of interacting with his coach), but Wade’s current lack of confidence in his jumper may be compounded by his general nature. LeBron is a guy who thrives most in open space. Dwayne always seems to destroy defenses the most right after he appears to be completely confined. Think about the greatest highlights of Wade’s career. They usually look like a snake striking a mouse. He gets trapped then spins, crosses over, leaps, switches hands and makes a beautiful shot. But it’s all just instincts. There isn’t anything but primal reaction to threat that’s bearing down on him.
On the other hand, LeBron is generally at his best when he has plenty of room. There is a reason there are so many highlights start with him taking four giant dribbles backwards towards half court. He likes to have time and space so he can see everything in front of him and the turn it to ash. Wade may as well be Jean Claude Van Damme fighting blind in Bloodsport. He doesn’t really care where anyone is. He will figure that out and score on them somehow if they get in his way.
Both are Hall of Fame effective. They’re just different.
There is something else that makes Dwyane’s struggles against the Pacers’ pick-and-roll defense strange. Oddly enough, in Game 3, it was Mario Chalmers — not Wade — who became the second Miami player in this series to figure out how to exploit a defense that gives him space to operate in front of a retreating defender.
In this video, Mario uses his floater, pull-up jumper and passing to get Miami very good shots.
Now, I don’t want to go overboard here.
This isn’t to say that both LeBron and Chalmers have cracked the code while Dwyane is just too slow on the uptake to figure it out. Because LeBron and Chalmers are still having a ton of problems in the pick-and-roll. Neither is exactly looking like John Stockton out there. Below, for example, are just a few of the possessions during which LeBron has number-twoed the bed as the attacking ball-handler coming off a screen.
And for further fairness here, just look at how well Dwyane has made decisions in instances when the Pacers have not dropped the screener’s defender back into the paint while guarding the pick-and-roll.
The Pacers hold a 2-1 lead in this series because their defense has been able to contain every Heat player except for LeBron James and, in Game 3, Mario Chalmers. Obviously, there is no way for Miami to win if that continues. And just as obviously, to me at least, this pick-and-roll defense is not something that will continue to baffle Dwyane Wade forever. But he is running really short on time.
If Chris Bosh was still playing in this series, this Pacers’ strategy of defending the pick-and-roll probably wouldn’t exist. Miami would just turn its pick-and-roll game into a pick-and-pop game, and Hibbert (and the other Indy retreating bigs) would be forced to come out to contest his lethal mid-range jumper. That would light up the scoreboard. It wouldn’t work.
But Chris Bosh isn’t here any more.
LeBron has adapted to how that changes his team’s offense.
He is a great player and should be fully capable of doing so. But if he doesn’t in Game 4 and his team loses as a result, it seems a near certainty that the Pacers are headed to the Eastern Conference Finals.