The Film Room Five, Featuring Split Counters

A new week is upon us, and so is a new edition of The Film Room Five. We start off in LA, where the Sixers weaponize Ben Simmons as a playmaker out of the short roll. Then, we head over to Orlando, where the Trail Blazers throw a bunch of different actions into one. After that, we jump on a plane to San Antonio, where the Bulls are flexing in defeat. Then, we take a look at some split actions and how cutters can reject them.

Sixers Are Weaponizing Ben Simmons In The Short Roll

Ever since he’s come into the league, regular Sixers viewers have clamored for Philly’s coaching staff to use Ben Simmons in a more off-ball role in the half-court setting. His refusal to shoot jump shots is not what is holding his game back. Defenses will sag off of him in perpetuity on the simple basis that you’re going to take away Simmons’ biggest threat. That’s just the essence of planning for Simmons on the offensive end. No matter how many jumpers he takes and makes, you’ll take your chances if it means protecting the rim against his attacks.

The real issue with Simmons is that he slips into lapses of indecision and passivity as he attacks the lane. He’ll inexplicably stop at the nail as he drives to the basket and sling a pass behind his head that may or may not reach a teammate. If it doesn’t, the Sixers need to get back on defense fast. In the regular season, the bad teams tend to commit more turnovers. The pace picks up, and Simmons is off to the races. He’s cultivated his All-Star status in that environment. But, in the playoffs, where mostly everyone is good, shots fall more often. Execution is more crisp. The players are better. Conserving energy for a fight in the waning moments of the fourth quarter becomes a goal. The pace slows down. That has spelled tragedy for Simmons and the Sixers in the past. But, it appears as though first-year head coach Doc Rivers has a counter to that offensive stalling.

Simmons is more involved in the dunker’s spot, and he’s being utilized in a way that magnifies his skills. It all starts with a ball screen.

This play is relatively simple. Shake Milton hits Simmons diving off of the ball screen and gets him the rock in space. From there, the defense has a few options. They can sag off and let Simmons get right into the teeth for a close shot. Maybe he gets fouled, maybe he doesn’t. But, he gets a look at the rim. If they play up, he can counter with the jets and get to the rim for the finish. If a helper dares stray too far towards the lane, you can trust Simmons to make the right pass. What the Sixers are doing here is weaponizing Simmons out of the short roll. They’re putting the ball in his hands, in space, with a chance to get downhill and make a decision.

Using him this way allows for small ball lineups similar to the one above. He can be the de facto big, with the other four stretching out on the perimeter to keep defenders out of the paint. Admittedly, you’re sacrificing a bit on the defensive end by not having a non-traditional big there. However, small ball lineups are more agile and quick than traditional lineups. That affords the capacity to menace opposing offenses in the passing lanes to prevent the threat of a paint score from even existing.

Simmons as the short roller, in some ways, bails him out of making real improvements as a scorer. Again, much of those issues relate to his mindset as a consistent aggressor in the driving lanes. But, it is a puzzle piece that fits in between Simmons being utilized in a way that is conducive to his skills and his being useful in a slower-paced half-court style come playoff time.

The Blazers Serve Trail Mix

This play, as simple as the actions are, is something of a mad scientist concoction. The perfect way to describe it, especially given that the Trail Blazers are running it, is a bag of trail mix. There are a bunch of different flavors combined into a singular bag to form a delicious (to some) snack.

The very first flavor you get is a hint of flex action. Norman Powell receives the ball at the top of the key and, simultaneously, Enes Kanter sets a down screen for Robert Covington to come up and receive the ball. There are two big giveaways of flex offense. The first is a cross screen by the restricted area to isolate a cutter on the block. The second is a down screen for said cutter to lift to the top of the key and receive the ball, just as you see here.

The second flavor is a combination of split action and Horns action. When Covington receives the ball at the elbow, CJ McCollum ducks in to the elbow to set a screen for Norman Powell. The formation creates one half of the Horns look. There’s no shooter in the right corner, so it technically isn’t Horns formation, but the concept of the twin “eyes” being utilized in the action is an allusion to the play that I’ve written so much about in these columns.

The second flavor you taste on the screen is a split cut. If you recall (and we’ll touch upon splits later in this column), the ball enters the post and the original passer screens away for a slasher to “split” the uprights (the post man and the initial ball-handler) as he dives to the rim. Covington is functioning as a post passer as he catches the ball with his back to the basket. Once he catches, the action unfolds, hence the hint of split action.

The last part of this play isn’t actually split action, though. That’s because Powell receives a flare screen from McCollum. The flare, a back screen intended for shooters to create space as they pop out to the perimeter, enables Powell to space out to the wing to catch and knock down a pass from Robert Covington.

A mouthful, for sure. But, a delicious treat, nonetheless.

The Bulls Have The Personnel To Sit In Flex

You almost never see teams pump flex action into their offense in the NBA. Defenders are bigger, quicker, and smarter. You can get away disguising it a few times, but you can rarely ever sit in it. The Bulls, however, might have the personnel to run flex over and over again.

You’ll notice the play opens with Zach LaVine setting a cross screen for Thaddeus Young to receive the ball on the block. Then, he flashes high and out to the perimeter, where newly-acquired Nikola Vucevic greets him with a down screen. Young opts to go to work, and is ultimately blocked at the rim by Rudy Gay. But, this play got me thinking–the Bulls have physical bigs and respectable ball-handling shooters.

You need two things to sit in flex throughout a game. First, you need bigs that will generate legitimate contact on screens. Second, you need shooters to punish defenses for trying to cheat your flex motions. Vucevic and Young are not particularly flashy and, as a result, have to do some of the dirty work to compliment their skills. They are effective screeners in that they credibly generate contact to create space for their screenees (no, I have no idea if that’s a real word–sue me!). With their abilities to create real space for the teammate receiving the screen, it is difficult for defenses to recover and deny those passes to the post or the perimeter. You want to switch? Fine, let your point guard go at it with Young in the post. Let your flat-footed big dance with LaVine or Coby White on the perimeter. You want to go zone? Great, Young can set the down screen for Vuc to lift into the blind spot of the zone at the free throw line. Whatever you got, the Bulls have the personnel to run flex from dusk til dawn.

Before we move on, you’re probably wondering why I said the Bulls were flexing in my opening paragraph. It was a play on words. Technically, they did flex. But, technically they didn’t. You can call that click bait (or, in this case, scroll bait), I call it clever journalism.

Grizzlies Split Rejection Wrinkle

It has certainly been a while since we touched on split cuts in any sort of concentrated manner. As luck would have it, I found some explicit split actions in two of the games I watched this week. In both cases, however, the split cut was rejected by the cutter in favor of another opportunity. Let’s start with this one from Tyus Jones.

Here, Brandon Clarke is the post man. De’Anthony Melton flashes through the lane to draw the additional defender away from the action. Justise Winslow screens away from the posting Clarke to active Tyus Jones for a slash to the rim. Jones senses that his line to the rim would be cut with two defenders greeting him if he were to split the uprights. So, he rejects the split option and accepts the dribble hand-off instead. The play thus evolves into a staggered screen set. With Moses Brown dropping to protect the rim, Jones has space to pressure the rim downhill. To avoid any issues, Jones elects to go with the floater, and deposits the basket.

Nuggets Make A Split Decision

This brings us to our final play. A similar concept to the last one, although almost completely reversed.

Given Nikola Jokic’s passing ability, the Nuggets are the perfect candidate to run split actions endlessly. Here, Jamal Murray enters the ball into Jokic and screens away for newly-acquired Aaron Gordon. On the screen, Gordon has a decision to make. He can split the uprights, which would be a fine option and would likely deliver promising odds that he’d score on the look. But, there’s a better option. Gordon knows the Hawks won’t help too far off of Michael Porter Jr. in the weak-side corner. He also knows that Trae Young is a terrible defender. So, while he could go for the split cut, he would still ultimately end up with a body in his way. Again, a favorable matchup, but not as easy as the option he elects on this play. Instead of v-cutting towards the ball like shooters will do, Gordon v-cuts away and, therefore, rejects the split. He still runs his man through Murray’s back screen and, thus, clears an alley to the basket. Young is completely unaware and in no position to help. Using Porter Jr.’s shooting prowess to his advantage and exploiting Young’s poor defensive profile, Gordon effectively identifies an opportunity to disguise a backdoor cut with a split action, and gets an easy bucket out of it. Ain’t that pretty?

Featured Image: The Denver Post

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