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The Suns And Mavs Use Basketball’s Favorite Play In Very Different Ways

For a while now, the pick and roll has been the centerpiece of nearly every offensive attack in the NBA. The on-ball screen has arguably never been more central than it is right now. According to Second Spectrum, the average NBA team ran 71.7 pick and rolls per 100 possessions during the 2021-22 regular season — a new high-water mark for the player-tracking era.1

In a season when the league ran this action more often than ever, almost nobody used it more often than did the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks. Phoenix ranked second in the NBA with 89.6 ball screens per 100 possessions, per Second Spectrum, while Dallas ranked third with 86.8 per 100.2 And the Suns and Mavs were not just prolific in their usage of pick and rolls; they were also efficient. The Suns generated an average of 1.036 points per direct screen,3 the second-best mark in the NBA. The Mavericks ranked fourth at 1.025 points per direct screen.  

Apart from volume and effectiveness, though, the pick-and-roll attacks of the Suns and Mavericks — who play the second game of their Western Conference semifinals matchup tonight — do not have all that much in common. We saw throughout Game 1 of the series how the two offenses use the same action in different ways in their respective attempts to manipulate the defense and create the best possible shot on any given possession. In Phoenix’s victory, we also saw why its pick-and-roll attack is more suited to beating Dallas’s defense than vice versa.

Pick-and-roll defense is a careful balancing act. It involves not just the player defending the ball-handler and the player defending the screener, but every other player on the floor as well. Those helpers have a responsibility on every play, whether it’s to stay home on a shooter, “tag” a roller coming through the lane by sinking off said shooter and bumping the dive man on his way through the paint, provide help on a drive or something else. 

The best way to describe the Suns’ pick-and-roll strategy is that they want to find a way to make those ancillary defenders wrong on every trip, no matter what choice they make. Phoenix often wants to pick on the low man in the help scheme — the guy who has the hardest job. He has to both provide help on the roll and find a way to recover to his man on the perimeter, all without giving up an open shot at the basket or from beyond the 3-point line. His decision-making and timing have to be both quick and perfect; he’s got to remain in the path of the roller for long enough to discourage a pass, then get out to the shooter quickly enough to prevent him from firing away.

The Suns live to toy with that low man. If the low man helps down into the paint, as Spencer Dinwiddie does in the first clip above, Devin Booker will quickly fire the ball to the wing, where his teammate can pump and drive for a running banker. If the low man instead jumps outside to the shooter, Booker will lob it up to DeAndre Ayton for a dunk. If the low man tries to split the difference and hesitate, Booker will hang on to the ball until he makes a choice and then punish him for it. (That’s what happens to Luka Dončić in the second and third clips.) And if the Mavericks try to give the low man too much help from the weak side, well, the Suns will just swing-swing their way into an open corner three.

Obviously, not every Suns pick and roll works exactly like this. For starters, it’s not always Booker as the ball-handler, and the team doesn’t always get into the action with a dribble handoff. But even when it’s Chris Paul just getting a high ball screen (or two), he’s still looking for ways to manipulate or punish the help (or lack thereof).

And of course, it helps to have ball-handlers like Booker and Paul who can punish different types of coverages. They can roast big men on switches in space. They can get into the in-between areas of the floor and knock down the midrange jumpers that defenses love to encourage because they’re low-value looks … which they are, for everyone except guys like Booker and Paul. And they can get the ball to Ayton in spots where he can do real damage — the type of damage the Utah Jazz’s big men were unable to do in their Round 1 series against the Mavericks.

“They can hurt you in the paint with JaVale [McGee] and Ayton,” Dallas head coach Jason Kidd said of the Suns. “This isn’t [Rudy] Gobert or [Hassan] Whiteside. These guys can put the ball in the basket. So, our bigs are going to be tested.”

Kidd’s concern proved prophetic, and quite quickly. Ayton scored 19 points on 9-of-12 shooting in the first half of Game 1, giving him as many pre-halftime buckets in this series as Gobert had in six Round 1 games against Dallas. The variety of ways in which he put the ball in the basket underscored Kidd’s fears about how Ayton could hurt his defense.

Ayton caught the ball at the rim. He finished in traffic. He used his size and sealed smaller defenders. He worked patiently from the post. He got himself freebies with quick duck-ins. He showed deft touch on the short roll. And he showed off the range on his jumper. Gobert and Whiteside did not provide nearly as diverse an array of challenges for Dallas’s big-man defenders to deal with.

Then there’s the other side of the court, where Ayton’s role is perhaps even more central — because the Mavericks seemingly want it that way.

The Dallas offense ran 73 pick and rolls in Game 1, according to Second Spectrum, 38 of which involved Dončić as the ball-handler and Ayton’s man (Dwight Powell or Maxi Kleber, for the most part) as the screener. While Phoenix’s pick-and-roll strategy involved forcing a help defender into a choice and then using that choice against him, Dallas had the far simpler goal of getting Dončić away from Mikal Bridges and allowing him to instead attack the man defending the screener, which more often than not was Ayton.

There are benefits and drawbacks to such a strategy. The benefit is, well, that it keeps the ball in Dončić’s hands and allows him to make the play. That’s the best thing the Mavs have going for them at pretty much all times. The drawback is that playing against the screener defender rather than the helpers, paradoxically, allows the helpers to also focus on the ball-handler, even while the supporting offensive players occasionally turn into bystanders. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that it led to somewhat mixed success for the Mavericks. (Dončić was brilliant, finishing with 45 points and eight assists, but other than Kleber, nobody else shot the ball particularly well from outside.)

Ayton got lost in space and beaten with a lob a couple of times, but he also handled himself fairly well when switched onto Dončić, keeping Luka on the outside rather than getting turnstiled and forcing other Suns players into panicked rotations. Dončić worked his way into a few tough jumpers and leaners and up-and-unders, but he really worked his way into them. And on other possessions, Phoenix’s excellent defenders were able to muddy the waters by fighting over screens, cutting off passing lanes and rotating out to contest shooters on the perimeter.

One way the Mavs may be able to create more of an advantage in pick and rolls is by leveraging Dončić’s size. They could use Paul’s man to set the screen on Bridges, rather than Ayton’s, in an effort to get Paul switched onto Dončić. Paul, after all, is listed at just 6 feet, 175 pounds, while Dončić is (conservatively) 6-foot-7, 230. 

However, Dallas set only six picks with Paul’s man as the screener in Game 1. The only score the Mavs got out of that action came on a tip-dunk where nobody boxed out Dorian Finney-Smith, but they also got a few high-quality looks that came because the Suns were more willing to send help Paul’s way when he had to guard Dončić one-on-one than they were to other defenders in that situation. (The Mavs could do the same thing against Paul’s backup, Cameron Payne.)

Coaxing an extra defender into the play would be hugely valuable for Dallas, as it could create second-side opportunities for players like Jalen Brunson (who scored just 13 points on 6-of-16 shooting in Game 1) and Dinwiddie. Those creases could be quickly erased by rotating Phoenix defenders, of course, but every defender that rotates to close one opening creates another elsewhere, which must then be filled by another helper and so on down the line. Create enough creases, and you start getting more and more open opportunities.

Obviously, that’s easier said than done — especially against a team as disciplined in its execution as the Suns. But that’s exactly why Dallas should diversify its attack, rather than repeatedly counting on Dončić to make a play against Ayton in space. The more potential weaknesses you probe, the more likely you are to find one. The Suns themselves exemplify that philosophy in the way they search for the weak link in the Mavericks’ coverage and exploit it; the Mavs would be wise to take a page from their opponents’ playbook in that regard.

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Footnotes

  1. Since the 2013-14 season.

  2. They ranked behind only the Utah Jazz, who ran an astonishing 96.1 ball screens per 100.

  3. A direct screen is one that results in a shot, turnover or foul drawn by the ball-handler, screener or teammate one pass away.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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