Coach: Ball Screen Chess & Challenging the Catch
Ball Screen Chess
One of the most commonly used (and misused) actions in professional basketball is the ball screen. Ball screens are designed, ultimately, to force defenders to make a decision (or, as my mentor David Thorpe would say, to make the defense “think”). That moment of hesitation can be taken advantage of by good offense, and any decision made means another option is more accessible.
The properly executed ball screen is nearly unguardable. Examples of repeatable, nearly flawless execution exist around the league today. For the purposes of this article, we will examine the high flat screens employed by the San Antonio Spurs and the sideline ball screen that happens so often when watching the Boston Celtics.
As opposed to the traditional post-oriented attack the Spurs employed during their early 2000s run, San Antonio recognizes its strengths and now attacks using more ball screens, and finds them all over the floor. Most common (and notable) however is the high and flat ball screen. This screen usually happens between the circles, sometimes as high out as just outside of the center circle.
A traditional screener sets up position parallel to the sideline, but this Spurs high screen is flat, meaning the ball handler can almost choose the direction that suits him (though the Spurs’ screeners are also capable of changing their angle slightly). This flatter set up prevents teams from defending with a traditional hedge or trap. It also makes “stringing” the screen out nearly impossible, as that amounts to giving up a lane to the basket.
In San Antonio’s case, the ball-handler (Tony Parker) is so quick that the normal process of going under the screen to defend it is also eliminated from the option list. By the time Parker’s defender has changed gears, sprinted below the screen, and attempted to re-establish, Parker is already in the lane carving up the backside.
Since traditional defenses don’t work, going to an unconventional tactic might make more sense. Expect teams to attempt to switch onto Parker with a big whose job will be to contain Parker and not get beat too quickly. Another defender would then move to trap (or hard stunt and recover) while the backside players all rotate into a defensive triangle near the goal.
This strategy would be high risk, but sometimes there is little choice against an attack as potent as San Antonio’s high ball screen action.
The Boston Celtics utilize a different but equally dangerous attack pattern. The Celtics set what look like ordinary, run-of-the-mill side ball screens, right around the wing. However, it is the set-up to these ball screens where Boston sets themselves apart.
Many screeners (and even teams) set up the screen by sauntering over and slowly getting into position. This allows the defense to prep for the upcoming action and get into place (whether to hedge or bust, whether to trap or string it out, maybe even switch).
Great teams, like Boston, sprint the screener from the weakside, preventing the defense from setting up. This is often on the second or third side of the floor, after consecutive ball reversals. As a result, the two main defenders are a step late, and the pure two-man action is nearly unguardable via traditional methods.
The best defense is to recognize the action as the ball is reversed, and send a trap before the screener sprints over (on the initial wing entry pass). This is not without its danger, as any trapping situation in the NBA leaves three defenders to guard four offensively gifted players. Another option is to attempt to bust it by forcing the handler to put the ball on the deck before the screen arrives, using the screener’s defender as a corral. Obviously, slow defenders can be exploited using any of these tactics.
These kinds of adjustments are always anticipated by the great coaches and players. In the playoffs, offenses tend to do a lot more slipping of screens (where the screener steps up to screen, then dives to the basket before the handler engages the screen). This action takes advantage of over-aggressive defenses, and leads to easy baskets. Expect to see a fair amount of this chess game throughout the upcoming postseason.
Challenging Every Catch
Fans hear a great deal about good defensive teams contesting every shot. They may even watch a team play, see a hand go up in front of a shooters face, and assume it is solid defense, without really understanding the mechanics of what else is happening. In reality, contesting every shot is not nearly as important as challenging every catch.
Teams like Boston, Chicago, and Miami (and to a lesser extent Oklahoma City, Memphis, and Indiana) do an amazing job of challenging every catch. This is not about hands getting into sight lines (while this is nice, at the NBA level, only younger or weaker players are truly bothered by defenders putting a hand in their line of sight). Instead, it’s about getting ito the personal space of the offensive player, making him “feel” you.
Tactics to make the offensive player “feel” you include getting nearly underneath a rising jump-shooter (“getting into their feet”), getting hip-to-hip in the post or other close quarters scenario such that the offensive player is unable to shift body position, or, on the perimeter, playing tag. Tag means closing out into an offensive player’s personal space, tagging them with a single hand check on the hip, and then establishing a cushion to prevent any kind of blow-by.
The Chicago Bulls are the most consistent team in the league at challenging every catch: and it is beautiful to watch. It keeps them in nearly every game, because, by challenging every catch, they are directing the offense where they want it to go. The Miami HEAT flies around like this at times, but their intensity and attention to detail has fallen off over recent weeks, we will see if the playoffs bring that level of commitment back.
The most sure-fire way to recognize a great “challenge every catch” team is to look for ones that challenge catches with multiple defenders (e.g., if one defender flies by the potential shooter, a second defender sprints to contest). This type of attack disrupts flow and pushes the player with the ball to “take matters into their own hands,” and find a way to score on his own. These kind of isolation situations are very hard to score out of, and often result in the total breakdown of a team’s offensive plan – which is exactly what challenging every catch is all about.
Have questions for Coach Macri? Be sure and drop by HOOPSWORLD on Tuesdays at 11AM Eastern for the Coach’s weekly basketball chat! You can also follow Coach Macri on Twitter @AnthonyLMacri.
Each week, HOOPSWORLD NBA analyst and coach Anthony Macri will open his notebook and offer an assortment of observations on games, players, and teams from throughout the league. Coach Macri serves as a player development consultant for the Pro Training Center and Coach David Thorpe, working with a variety of NBA players on their skills and game understanding and served as an assistant coach at Paul VI Catholic High School (Fairfax, VA), a consensus top 15 team in the nation this past season. The Coach’s Notebook is a weekly feature on HOOPSWORLD.