SI.com’s Rob Mahoney does a deep dive on the powerful tool that is playcalling.
Playcalling is a powerful tool for an NBA coach, if one constantly challenged by the scouting apparatus that envelops the league. Most teams have a detailed understanding of what their opponents might run in a given game. That knowledge makes every little twist of creativity all the more important. Even an old standby can find new life with a slightly different setup, as a play’s design draws power from its inability to be recognized.
Flexibility is key. The playbook itself is something of a living document, changing shape over time to keep ahead of the scouting curve and meet a team’s evolving needs. Today we’ll take stock of eight examples—some old, some new—that balance those factors to put X’s and O’s into effective, creative action.
Inbound situations—particularly those in close games—have trained defenders to expect all kinds of layered cutting and screening to free up a particular shooter. Rick Carlisle and the Mavericks, meanwhile, engineered a closing set against the Celtics in which the target of the play barely moved at all before scoring. Zaza Pachulia, Dirk Nowitzki, and Wesley Matthews lined up at the free throw line, which brought their individual defenders to line up accordingly.
The operative action is a Matthews cut; by jumping between his own defender (Avery Bradley) and Nowitzki’s (Jae Crowder), Matthews manages to draw the attention of both. All the while, Nowitzki backs up slowly to the three-point line and moves Pachulia into position as a protective screener. By the time the Celtics know they’ve been had, it’s far too late.
The NBA is in an age of misdirection. Players understand basic play actions so well that they sniff them out almost immediately. Those triggers that might not catch their eye are well scouted and discussed at shootaround. To counter that, the best offenses in the league litter their set plays with all sorts of loose ends—setup sequences that appear as though they might be relevant to a play’s progression as to occupy a few defenders.
Working with that kind of misdirection, however, requires that players sell certain possibilities. Kemba Walker takes that role here for Charlotte. After receiving the inbound pass from Nicolas Batum, Walker essentially follows Batum in his cut across the court. Marvin Williams, who had screened for Batum at the elbow, then cuts across the floor in the opposite direction while Walker mirrors.
Walker goes through the motion on those sequences before taking the play to its natural end: A crossover into high pick-and-roll that comes almost immediately after Williams’s cut, when Cody Zeller—who had set a cross screen for Williams—repositions himself to screen off Walker’s defender. The spacing created in Charlotte’s preamble gives Walker all the room he needs to draw in the help defense of Trey Lyles and kick a pass out to Williams for three.
Golden State Warriors
Golden State runs some really nice plays out of timeouts made all the more terrifying by the fact that they don’t much need Stephen Curry in order to function. Here he’s the inbounder —a crucial role, to be sure, but one that doesn’t draw any particular value from Curry’s gravity as a shooter. The key is creating moments of defensive hesitation.
Watch the Pacers here as they attempt to track Leandro Barbosa: When Barbosa sets a screen for Andre Iguodala on the left side of the lane, Budinger has little choice but to hesitate as he waits for his teammate to clear the screen. From there, Barbosa curls around an immediate screen from Harrison Barnes and darts down the lane. C.J. Miles, who had been defending Barnes, is just a moment late in recognizing Barbosa’s cut for the threat it is and has no chance of recovering into good position. Indiana converges, though by then Barbosa is already at the rim.
• MORE NBA: Stephen Curry gets the better of Kawhi Leonard
Los Angeles Clippers
This baseline inbounds play from Doc Rivers is a welcome reminder of the power in encouraging defensive overreaction. A single cut from Jamal Crawford pulls two defenders—Alec Burks and Trey Lyles—off balance. From there, Lyles’s mark (Paul Pierce) is able to duck behind a DeAndre Jordan screen at the three-point line and play off of Utah’s desperation. Neither Lyles nor Trevor Booker want to surrender this look to Pierce, which causes both to scramble into Jordan’s screen and out of good defensive position. The play only ends as it does because Pierce is sharp enough to recognize this development immediately, though he’s aided by the fact that this entire sequence was designed to that end.
San Antonio Spurs
Basketball die-hards should be well acquainted with this play, which Gregg Popovich occasionally dusts off to make an opposing defense look foolish. Most every color commentator in the NBA will issue a general warning about the inbounder on possessions such as these; a defense’s natural preoccupation with the four opponents actually in play grants a certain invisibility to the inbound passer after initiating the play.
San Antonio twists that idea even further by using one of its bigs (usually Boris Diaw, here LaMarcus Aldridge) at the elbow to catch and enable the inbounder’s backdoor cut. Scouting this play closes the back door with relative ease. Defending it as one would any other sideline inbound situation, however, leaves little time or capacity for help after Manu Ginobili makes his move.
In this design, the Raptors run what amounts to two simultaneous pick-and-rolls at the top of the floor. While DeMar DeRozan works the two-man game with Patrick Patterson on the left side, Kyle Lowry (along with his own screening counterpart, Luis Scola) prepares for a kickout in the middle. Once the pass comes, Lowry goes—putting into motion a sequence in which four defenders are pulled in varying directions as Scola rolls, Patterson pops, and DeRozan thrives off of the defense’s preoccupation.
What makes this play so devious is that Atlanta typically uses inbound situations as a fairly basic entry point for its offense. Jeff Teague or Kyle Korver might run around some screens to catch the ball in a particular space on the floor, from which the Hawks can flow into their usual, trained rhythm. It’s something between pure improvisation and a set play; the scripted movement is arranged simply to get a playmaker some momentum as Atlanta rolls into its usual stuff.
Mike Budenholzer plays with that expectation here. Kent Bazemore lines up at the top of the key with Teague stationed at the free throw line and both bigs (Al Horford and Mike Scott) lined up at the left free throw line extended. Bazemore’s defender, Suns rookie Kevin Booker, is cooked the moment he sets up to deny the pass. Positioning himself between Bazemore and the inbound passer (Kyle Korver) may take away any curl toward the ball, though in doing so Booker leaves himself vulnerable to an up screen from Teague at the free throw line. All five defenders have vacated the paint in anticipation of more complex screening action, thus affording Bazemore a clean look at the rim. The Hawks collect.
Portland Trail Blazers
With the right personnel, the simplest movement can make all the difference. Everything here is fairly routine; Allen Crabbe comes off of Meyers Leonard’s down screen to retrieve the ball at the top of the floor; Damian Lillard, having given up possession, darts around an Ed Davis screen on the weak side only to double back; and Davis, having rolled into open space, makes himself available for a pass and score. Within that simplicity is a reminder of the power of personnel.
• MORE NBA: SI.com presents its NBA midseason awards
This basic progression is made powerful by the fact that the defense can’t allow a shooter like Lillard to make a catch with a clear view of the rim. When he doubles back, two Heat defenders come with him. Lillard punishes the attention with a quick, high pass to Davis. Some defenses will live with a player like Davis having to make decisions under duress. That they have to make that concession, however, is a testament to how Lillard’s very presence catalyzes play action.