The pick and roll has been a staple in NBA play throughout the history of the league, but teams are now using it more than ever to exploit mismatches and generate offense. PnR coverage generally comes in three forms: some teams like to stunt their big man forward to hedge the ball-handler and give their on-ball defender the time to get away from the screen and scramble back on to their man; other teams simply switch, which negates the value of the pick but has the potential to draw a lot of mismatches in the post and on the perimeter; and lastly, some teams use “drop” coverage, where, rather than following the screener, the defending big man will hang back around the basket, conceding a jump shot but protecting the rim.
On Tuesday night against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Celtics were faced with drop coverage from Hassan Whiteside. Without the danger of those deadly Kemba Walker pull-up threes, the Blazers strategy was to have their guard go over picks in an attempt to funnel the Celtics into mid-range shots or drives right at Whiteside, who is one of the league’s better shot blockers. But the Celtics refused to fall into that trap. Whether it was Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, or Gordon Hayward, the Celtics consistently managed to find ways to exploit Portland’s pick-and-roll coverage in the victory.
One of the biggest potential pitfalls for teams facing drop coverage is settling for those mid-range shots that the defense allows coming right off the pick. It was those very shots that led many to criticize Jayson Tatum last season, and one of the big reasons behind the resurgence of the third-year wing has been a much-improved shot distribution. Per Cleaning the Glass, last season, Tatum took 22% of his shots from the long mid-range area which was higher than 96% of other forwards. This year, that number is down to 13%.
As Tatum rounds the Daniel Theis screen, he has a good few feet of space if he wanted to pull up for a jump shot. Last season, he might have done just that. Instead, he takes it downhill to the basket, and uses a trademark Theis seal to get the easy finish.
Marcus Smart has become quite adept at maneuvering around Theis screens and seals himself, and while he doesn’t quite have the athleticism and length of Tatum to go at the bigger defenders at the rim, Smart uses his passing ability to create nifty openings for the German big man.
After a half-screen, half-slip by Theis, Smart loops around the key before baiting Whiteside into contesting what looks like a reserve layup. But instead of shooting, Smart makes a beautiful pass to set up Theis for the simple dunk.
During the second half of the Warriors’ dynasty (the Kevin Durant version), Golden State found a way to exploit the fact that teams were sagging off Draymond Green. By using Draymond as a screener for Steph Curry, the Dubs realized that teams would have no one to help on Curry coming off a screen if there was no one tight to Draymond. Kemba Walker does a great job of using this to his advantage in Boston as he has an incredible ability to stop on a dime and pull-up right after a screen and now, Marcus Smart is also showing that he too is capable of taking advantage of this drop coverage by hitting threes.
With Whiteside staying back in the key as Kanter comes up to set the screen in this final clip, Smart knows that if he gets a good pick, there will be no one to contest a quickfire shot. Kanter takes care of Anfernee Simons, and Smart has acres of space to pull up and hit the trey.
So far on the year, the Celtics rank first in the league, scoring 1.01 points per possession on those used by the pick-and-roll ball-handler, and while much of that is down to Walker’s prowess, (his 1.11 PPP on 10.3 attempts trails only Damian Lillard in terms of players who have at least 4 such possessions a night) the development of Smart and Tatum in pick-and-rolls is a promising sign for the playoffs when the game slows down. While not all teams use the drop coverage that Boston was able to take advantage of, a couple, like potential playoff opponents Milwaukee and Brooklyn, do, and the C’s success in dealing with it last night should bode well going forward.