On Sunday afternoon against the Heat, Rajon Rondo had his way with the Miami Heat defense en route to his fifth triple-double of the season. It was hard not to notice him as he did it either. Multiple Celtic possessions featured Rondo galloping into the paint unmolested, a trend that helped a rather pedestrian Boston offense suddenly look invincible despite the absence of Ray Allen.
Most have pointed to Erik Spoelstra’s decision to go over the top of any Rondo pick and rolls as the primary culprit. But in the NBA, it is important to remember two very important keys. First; pick and roll defense is always based off who is involved and in what area of the floor. The second is that on the NBA level, whatever the coverage is, a team is always going to be giving something up.
That second part is particularly important to note when looking at the pick and roll action involving Rondo and Paul Pierce. The standard line of thinking with that duo, when the screen is set in the middle of the floor, is stay attached (or jam) with Pierce’s defender and have Rondo’s defender go under. In theory, that coverage should leave the only thing open a Rondo shot. And if we go by Key #2, a Rondo jumper from 15+ feet seems like an okay thing to give up.
However, because Rondo is so explosive at turning the corner on the ball screen, the on-ball defender, who must go under at an angle to cut off any deep penetration near the rim, finds himself at a severe disadvantage. This forces the hedging defender (assigned to Pierce) to stay with Rondo longer than he would like.
All Pierce has to do is simply screen and pop back behind the three-point line and waits for the pass. On the catch, Pierce simply reads the closeout. In the following edit, Pierce not only picks and pops for 3, but is also able to counter into a shot-fake attack and get to the rim. Take a look:
The scary part is that’s not the only negative result teams can experience from this stay-attached-and-go-under coverage. Much like Dallas does with Dirk, Pierce can cleverly (and illegally) bull rush or move into the defender going underneath and force a switch. Naturally, a pinch post isolation match-up between Pierce and a small guard is hardly a good result for a defense off this action.
Pierce misses the shot in the clip, but the bottom line is he was able to engineer a switch onto a 5’9” guard at the nail. In theory the “stay-attached and go-under” coverage seems like the right ploy because it should force Rondo to be the scoring option. In practice, teams end up with Pierce getting all the great looks.
As they did prep work for the Boston match-up, Spoelstra and his staff must have decided the key to defending this action was to keep the ball out of Pierce’s hands. The way to do that was to switch up the coverage to a “show and over” scheme.
The coverage is just like it sounds, the player guarding the screener shows hard, forcing the ball handler to re-direct towards halfcourt while the on-ball defender goes over the top of the screen. By going over the screening Pierce, the on-ball defender took the option of being dragged into a switch off the table. Hedging hard allowed the Pierce’s defender a much better chance at not being forced into a long a closeout. So what does a coverage like that give up? Take a look at the following clip.
Of the three clips, the ideal result was the Rondo floater. Assuming the on-ball defender doesn’t make a heroic effort at getting back in front while going over the top of the screen, a mid-range Rondo shot is what that coverage is conceding to give up. Given the hierarchy of efficient basketball shots, a floater from Rondo seems to be a better option than an open Pierce 3-point shot or attack on the rim.
While the other results make it seem like the coverage was a complete and abject failure, it actually hides the fact that it accomplished one key goal: it kept Pierce from getting the ball. And for those still skeptical, the coverage does actually work. Take a look:
In the last clip, the Nuggets execute incredibly well and completely stop the play. That was what Miami was hoping to get out of the scheme except they were quicker rotations and better awareness from help defenders away from accomplishing that.
Greg Popovich has made an amazing career of using the regular season in a way that better prepares his teams for the post season. Spoelstra’s decision is in that same vein. Should Miami go to war with Boston in a playoff series this spring, the Heat are now better prepared to stop them. In the end, Spoelstra essentially tried something new in a relatively meaningless game and it failed (rather miserably). It doesn’t mean, however, that it wasn’t worth trying.