Now that you’ve had your evening beer (or your morning coffee, depending on when you’re reading this), it’s time for a new rendition of The Film Room Five. We start off the week in Denver with a give-and-go courtesy of Nikola Jokic. Then, we go to Miami, where the Heat weaponize Duncan Robinson as a screener. Let’s hop on a flight to Philly, where high pick-and-rolls get the 76ers moving the ball around the court to cripple Dallas’ defense. We send it over to Boston, where the Celtics open their game against the Pacers with a Horns-Flex set. Finally, we wrap it up in New York, where the Pacers run a staggered split screen to get Doug McDermott attacking the rim.
The Game Is Simple When You Play With Nikola Jokic
Denver’s superstar big man is averaging 8.5 assists per game. When he makes plays as simple as this, you see why. In fact, he makes it look so easy that you almost wonder why he doesn’t average more dimes than that. Denver is connecting on 41.3 percent of its three-point looks and 60 percent of its two-point attempts coming from Jokic’s passes. So, my friends, that means secondary assists. The Nuggets are second in the NBA in secondary assists. In other words, it’s engrained in the Nuggets to make the extra pass.
On this play, the game is simplified quite dramatically for Michael Porter Jr. All he has to do is make the entry pass and cut with some level of effort in order to reap the benefits of Jokic’s court vision. To Jokic’s credit, he lifts Enes Kanter out of the restricted area with a sellable shot fake. Having created new space for the cutting Porter Jr, Jokic feeds him right out of the fake so as to not waste time while Kanter attempts to recover. Notice how he feeds Porter Jr’s outside hand for the reverse layup. The pass to the leading hand actually saves time, as Porter Jr having to turn back to retrieve a pass behind himself would’ve given the Blazers ample time to recover.
Not only is Jokic’s vision constantly evolving into a more dangerous weapon, but it’s transforming Denver’s offense into a quicker, smoother, and simpler assault. Oh, by the way, marquee free agents enjoy playing with facilitators with that vision because they make their jobs easier. Carmelo Anthony will go down as a legend, but Jokic is a more powerful floor-raiser than even Anthony was in the Mile High City.
Don’t Lose Track Of Duncan Robinson
Erik Spoelstra has had some moments of vulnerability this season. But, we can’t judge him on the team that the HEAT have been able to field for the majority of this season. The league’s COVID protocols and an assortment of injuries have left the HEAT deprived of their leaders at varying points throughout this season. Spoelstra’s reputation won’t fade from one difficult season, and the faintest traces of greatness like this make it hard to be short-sighted when judging the head coach:
Notice how Duncan Robinson sets a slip screen for Goran Dragic. With slip screens, the screener traditionally ‘slips’ to the basket after squaring his body as if he’ll set a screen. But, he never actually sets it. Instead, he dives to the rim looking for a feed from the ball-handler. Slips are effective when defenses are switching or the second defender in the pick-and-roll is overplaying. But, Spoelstra adds a touch of innovation to the slip. Instead of having Robinson dive to the rim, he inverts the slip, having his sniper pop out to the three-point line. Bam Adebayo, who is trailing the play, shades towards the play and sets a solid pin-down screen to create space for Robinson to make a clean catch and rise up for a triple. The Raptors are switching, and Aron Baynes finds himself closing on the shooter from the free throw line. No chance.
Brotherly Love Out Of The High Pick-And-Roll
There are not too many players who weaponize shooters by putting downhill pressure on the rim quite like Ben Simmons does. But, how does one go about weaponizing a non-shooting facilitator in the half-court? Try setting high ball-screens.
Joel Embiid’s massive frame sets a screen capable of completely clearing Simmons of the chasing Maxi Kleber. Josh Richardson doesn’t want to leave Tobias Harris unoccupied, so that leaves the hilariously slow-footed Boban Marjanovic to attempt to defend the paint from Simmons’ attack. With the attention on the lane, Josh Richardson slides a bit too far over in help, leaving Seth Curry completely unattended on the perimeter. Simmons senses the help closing in and contorts his body to refile a pass out to his shooter. The always-calculated Curry waits for Richardson’s out-of-control close-out, before attacking the middle of the lane. Curry, of course, is a tremendous shooter. So, Marjanovic has to step up to stop the penetrator. That lift leaves some air for Simmons, and Curry shows some love to the team’s best dimer, feeding him for a slam from the dunker’s spot. It’s all love in Philly, especially with the team sitting in first place.
The Celtics Flex Their Playbook
I often try to hunt different Xs and Os that I see with these columns, and this one was pure gold. I suppose the most thought-provoking aspect of the mechanics of basketball is that there is a name or a term for every type of action and formation. Let’s look at this one.
An important distinction is how this opening play unfolds. If you pause the clip at the :03 mark, the Celtics initiate the play in Horns formation. How do I know? Look at the image below.
Horns sets follow this formation. The ball-handler is alone up top. The eyes of the bull, Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson, are the big men stationed just above the elbow. The two tips of the horns, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, are pinned to the corners to stretch the defense and create little pockets of spacing on either wing. The bird’s eye view makes the alignment look similar to the horns of a bull.
Now, let’s take a look at how this play unfolds.
The first :01 of this play give it away pretty quickly. Kemba Walker sets a split screen for Jaylen Brown, who immediately knifes around the screen and cuts to the rim. That baseline screen for a slasher to cut to the line tips you off that it’s a Flex set. Doug McDermott does a tremendous job of denying Jaylen Brown an opening to receive a pass, so Tatum takes it upon himself to make something happen.
So, in totality, the play looks like this.
(Pardon the skip in the middle, I couldn’t find a replay of the whole play without any editing to put it together.)
Pacers Stagger and Split
We wrap up this edition of the column with a clever action to weaponize Doug McDermott as a slasher instead of a shooter.
The play opens as a decoy for Justin Holiday. Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis present a staggered screen set for Holiday to curl around and retrieve the ball from TJ McConnell. With Holiday posing a threat as a shooter, RJ Barrett has to play up on him. That’s when Turner and Sabonis rotate their blockade to help weaponize McDermott. Reggie Bullock is already fighting like all hell to get around the barricades set up by Turner and Sabonis. With Turner and Sabonis shading towards the lane, their defenders follow them while remaining aware in help. But, Barrett having to play up on the passer opens up a pocket of space for McDermott to attack the rim in what becomes a split-screen action. McBuckets has the option to push the rim or square his shoulders into a triple. McDermott curls and attacks the rim sharply. To his credit, McDermott goes up strong with the ball. But, he leaves the ground too soon and, thus, is in the air for quite a long time. Nerlens Noel is too good of a rim protector to miss the opportunity at a swat.
Featured Image: Craig F Walker/Boston Globe Staff