It’s a new week. You know what that means. A brand new Film Room Five column is upon us. This week, I look at Jimmy Butler creating contact, then I go to Denver to examine how the Nuggets just kill opponents with movement. From there, we go to Boston to dissect a split action. I introduce a new action courtesy of the Bulls, and then wrap it up with a look at the evolution of Tobias Harris as a playmaker.
Turn on your night light, pull out your bifocals. Whatever you need to do, buckle in.
Jimmy Butler Has Mastered The Art Of Baiting Contact On Screens
Jimmy Butler is sixth in the NBA in free throw attempts per game. He doesn’t just crash into players, nor does he create space with fancy moves and then stab defenses with little fakes to get them to bite. On the contrary, he is quite surgical in finding contact. Notice I said finding contact. That’s because it isn’t readily available for him to take advantage of. Rather, he assesses what the defense is giving. He looks at how they want him to go, and then leverages their game plan to create the foul. Watch and learn.
Here, Butler sees the Knicks want to both force him left and towards the middle of the lane. Why? Because the help converges in the lane to wall off Butler’s attack. Butler also knows how Tom Thibodeau likes to defend ball-handlers and wings, and suspects that a hedge could be at play. So, Butler hugs the screening Adebayo and sees Nerlens Noel stunting at a distance to give himself a chance to recover when Adebayo rolls. In Butler’s mind, that means his original defender is following him through the screen. So instead of turning the corner immediately, Butler elevates right beyond the screen as Barrett extends his arm to tag the ball-handler. With Barrett’s arm in his shooting path to create the inevitable contact, all Butler has to do is sell the foul, and the whistle obliges.
Butler’s ability to score at three levels has faded a bit over the last two seasons. But, he’s still one of the league’s most dangerous scorers due to his relentless attack of the rim and his knack for finding contact and getting to the line.
The Nuggets And All Of Their Moving Parts
You’ll hear a lot about moving without the basketball. Coaches, analysts, players, everyone says it. But, does anyone really exemplify what it means to be proficient as off-ball movers? There’s lots of talk about it. There’s not a ton of actually doing it. Then, there’s the Denver Nuggets. Denver’s offense is as dynamic as it is because of all of the moving parts. Outside of Jokic, there’s very little standing and watching. There’s not a single tool that is without use or purpose. It makes their offense beautiful and exhausting. It also makes them a wonderful source of Xs and Os. Take this play, for example.
The play opens with a Horns set, with Michael Porter Jr and Nikola Jokic opening a few feet below the top of the key. Jamal Murray enters the ball into Nikola Jokic in the high post and then cuts away. The Nuggets sense that the Sixers are multiple steps slow defensively. They understand that quick off-ball cuts and moves will free them up for looks. Murray has Simmons glued to his side, and Danny Green is not quick enough to stay with the younger Porter Jr. So, Murray drags Simmons away from Porter Jr to prevent any late helping or switching. Porter Jr sees that Simmons has no idea where he is, as all of his attention and vision are dedicated to Murray. So, Porter Jr sets the slip screen for Murray and dives to the basket. Having left Danny Green in the dust, it’s an easy finish off of the feed by Jokic.
Jokic’s usage with this group is why he’s having an MVP-level season. Jokic’s ability to pick apart defenses as both a passer and scorer are well-documented. But, his team’s culture of quick, synchronized off-ball movement is the catalyst that makes Denver’s offense hum.
The Kemba Split
The Celtics are an absolute mess this season. You got Keith Smith trying to inject a dosage of sanity into a depressed fanbase. You got Gary Tanguay saying Jayson Tatum is destined to force his way out and that it won’t even be that big of a loss when he does (personally, I think Tatum’s a very good player, but he can’t be your number-one guy). You got Bill Simmons cooking up a history of trades that Danny Ainge almost made. Really, the whole thing is a mess this season.
But, dammit, if they don’t flex some fun Xs and Os night in and night out. They also do a heck of a job disguising actions to get what they really want, like they do here.
The Celtics love activating Kemba Walker to get into the middle of the lane out of these split actions. But, there’s a catch. Walker doesn’t always accept the split cut option. Here, Marcus Smart dishes the rock to Mo Wagner in the high post and screens away for Walker to lift up. Instead of splitting the uprights (between Smart and Wagner), Walker hesitates for a moment to try to slow his man coming off of the Smart screen. Then, he bursts to receive the short pass from Wagner and accepts the spread pick-and-roll option. In rejecting the split and accepting the spread, Walker is able to push toward the middle of the lane with ample space. As has become a patented part of his game, Walker pulls up for the mid-range jumper right above the free throw line. This one misses, but a great action for a small, speedy point guard, nonetheless.
Bulls Zipper Into High-Low
It’s time for a new lesson. Take out your notepads, your bisectors (if you’re into Geometry like that), your glasses, whatever. There are no cell phones permitted in this class (I know, just let me have this), as this lesson is very important.
You often see down screens for big men or shooters to lift up the middle of the lane and catch the ball at the free throw line or higher. Said screens typically occur down by the block or, if you want to be more liberal in the detail, any spot in the vicinity of where the baseline meets the paint. The point is, you want the player receiving the screen to have as much upward momentum and space as possible as they curl into the catch. The more you stretch the primary defender on the recipient of the screen, the better the play functions. This action is called a ‘Zipper’ because it resembles a zipper sliding down the rail on a piece of clothing. You see it quite often. But, it doesn’t really present as something notable because it’s often a mechanism in a much grander action or play. Here, however, it is a key feature of what’s going on. Take a look.
Nikola Vucevic sets the zipper for Lauri Markkanen to lift up to the top of the key and open up for a pass. Because Mikal Bridges chases Markkanen rather wide, Vooch turns the screen into a slip. He never actually creates any space for Markkanen to lift, but he mimics the zipper motion before pivoting into the low post. This slip zipper opens up a high-low action for Markkanen to receive the pass and then immediately look into the post to feed Vucevic. Deandre Ayton is not nearly good enough as a defender to actually bother the All-Star big man, and it’s an easy basket.
Tobias Harris Is Evolving As A Playmaker
With their team in first place, 76ers fans have had much to be happy about this season. When they’re not complaining about every breath Ben Simmons takes or deleting their old tweets about Tobias Harris, they’re praising their MVP-level big man and riding on the ‘Tobias Harris was an All-Star snub’ bus. But Harris deserves praise beyond just his scoring, late-game heroics, and shooting efficiency. At age 28–his tenth season in the league–Harris is showing traces of improvement as a playmaker. No, he’s not quite knifing into the lanes and ripping cross-court passes to the open shooter on the weak side. But, he’s starting to leverage his size, body, and threat as a scorer to create openings for his teammates. He’s rarely fancy, but he’s recognizing and making the easy play.
Harris pushes left towards the basket, as he usually does, on this play. But, he notices Dwight Howard evacuate the strong side of the lane and relocate to the weak side. Harris knows he either has a score or a dump-off to his big man. The issue evolves into ‘how do I get Brandon Clarke to fully commit to me?’ There’s one obvious way to do it–sell the attack. Harris elevates as if he’s going to rise up for the finish. That effectively gets Clarke in the air to contest, meaning he has officially committed to Harris. That’s when the opportunity creates itself. Harris recognizes the window of opportunity and drops it to Howard. With the bucket served on a silver platter, all Howard has to do is pivot and jump.
That’s just a microcosm of how Harris has slowly exhibited development as a playmaker. He still isn’t much of a passer and he’s not picking defenses apart as anything other than a scorer. But, he’s figuring out how to use his body and scoring prowess to get himself in positions to pressure helpers to step up. When they do it, he’s punishing more frequently. This season, Harris is averaging a career-best 3.6 assists per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio a tad worse than 2.0:1. It’s nothing sexy, but it means Harris is getting comfortable with making plays for others and isn’t compromising possessions when he does it, either.
Featured Image: Darnell Mayberry/The Athletic