What does it mean to 'blue' a pick and roll?

USA TODAY Sports

One of the most important defensive concepts is also known as one of the core colors of the rainbow. We explain the concept of "blueing" a pick and roll, using one of the league's best defensive teams as an example.

Most kids grow up learning the full spectrum of colors from their first package of Crayola crayons. Or, perhaps, some kids get a jump on their personal color wheel through primary science class and the full spectrum on a rainbow.

More from Doug Eberhardt

This week, I'm here to teach all of the NBA youngsters about the importance of colors in a strong professional basketball defense.

"Blue" is both a beautiful color and one of the most important defensive words to multiple NBA teams. Next time you watch an offensive team try and run a side pick and roll, listen carefully to what the defensive big man calls out.  Chances are good that he'll shout out "Blue. Blue!"

To "blue" a side pick and roll is to try and take away the middle screen by forcing the ball handler down toward the baseline (and using the sideline as another defender).

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Teams do not want the ball handler getting middle off of side pick and rolls. To take the screen away and limit its effectiveness, the on-ball defender will immediately angle themselves on the offensive player's top-side hip. Ideally, by physically attaching himself there, the defender will force the ball handler down the sideline and away from the middle screen. He's dictating where the O can go.

As the top defender herds the ball handler, the screener's man establishes position along the lane parallel to the sideline. Ideally, the big man's bottom foot should be at slight angle up toward the ball handler. The big is "zoned-up," in a perfect help position for his perimeter teammate and close enough to scramble back to his own man to contest a mid-range jump shot.  While the big is loudly calling out "blue," there should also be a man at the nail (concept explained here) and low help in the "two nine" position (concept explained here) from the opposite side. This play from Grizzlies-Thunder is a perfect example, and it ultimately ends in a Memphis steal.

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What is the defense giving up by "blueing" the wing pick and roll? If the offensive team has an effective stretch big, you might be giving up an open above-the-break three or a long two. To truly hurt "blue," this big usually has to be an elite shooter, someone like Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Love or LaMarcus AldridgeDepending on the defensive prowess and foot speed of your big man, you might also give up a medium-range pull-up jumper for the ball handler. Most defensive teams will live with this shot. For a small amount of time, anyway.

The most dangerous result of "blue" for a defensive team is when the man setting the screen is able to "flip" or "turn" the screen from a middle angle to a sideline angle. This often results in the ball handler "snaking" his dribble tightly around the pick and heading back to the middle of the floor. And like being out after 2 a.m., nothing good ever happens when a ball handler can get into the middle of the paint.

But when executed well, "blue" can be stifling. Here's the perfect example from that same Grizzlies-Thunder game.


While I am partial to that color, other teams use different colors or words for this defensive staple. Some call it "black." Many other teams call it "ICE." Another label is "push" or "down." Chances are, you've heard all of these words used when watching an NBA game.

Regardless of what it is called, pushing a ball handler to the baseline off of a sideline screen and roll has become a bedrock of most teams' defensive foundations. So, from now on, when you listen and hear "blue," think National Basketball Association defense and not Pablo Picasso or Miles Davis.

ATO of the Week

January 14: Grizzlies 87, Thunder 84, 20 seconds left in fourth quarter. OKC ball.

We've seen a series of successful game-winning or game-tying ATOs previously in this space, but I don't want to give everyone the impression that all after-timeout plays are things of beauty. Sometimes, even the most well-designed and well-executed ATO can fail simply because you don't make a shot.

This week, we'll examine a team and coach who often take abuse for their late-game execution: the Oklahoma City Thunder and Scott Brooks.

After a lucky defensive possession, OKC rebounds a short Marc Gasol miss in the paint with 25.7 seconds remaining. The Thunder choose to dribble the ball into the frontcourt rather than immediately call timeout. Question No. 1: With two timeouts remaining, do you make that game clock last as long as possible or use the dribble to gain a little bit extra real estate in the frontcourt for your inbounds pass?

After a full timeout, the Thunder set up with Reggie Jackson as their inbounder (guarded by Mike Conley), Serge Ibaka (guarded by Zach Randolph) at the high post, Kevin Durant (Tayshaun Prince) at the low block, Nick Collison (Gasol) just off the top of the key and Jeremy Lamb in the far, weak-side corner (Courney Lee).

Question No. 2: With the ball in the frontcourt, do you really need a big, Ibaka, setting the down screen on the rail-thin Prince? This question will loom large momentarily.

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As the action is triggered, Ibaka moves to set a down screen for KD. Durant cuts to the inside, not really using the actual screen, and receives the inbounds pass almost at center court. This extra real estate might be why Brooks didn't call the timeout right away, though I'm giving the benefit of the doubt here.

After setting the screen, Serge clears and fills the strong-side corner. No switches on defense, everyone shored up just right. Mr. October inbounds to Durant and steps into the wing spot on the floor.

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On KD's catch, Collison begins his action. He begins to move towards Lamb in the corner, as if he's going to set a quick down screen on Lee. Gasol gently moves with him but senses something else is coming and doesn't get too far below his man.

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After a couple of steps, Collison reverses course and moves to set an high screen for Durant, which will be sending Kevin to his strong right hand. Gasol recognizes what is happening before Prince is picked off by the screen. Gasol flattens out and shows on KD.

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Unfortunately for Memphis, the DPOY comes out too wide and Durant executes a beautiful split on Gasol and the trailing Prince.

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The Grizzlies remain alert and moving in unison, as Mike Conley stunts toward KD and Randolph slides over from his low help position to pick up the slashing Durant. Kevin is "thunderstruck" by the low help and immediately passes the ball to the wide open Ibaka in the corner. Conley runs at Serge with an almost fake closeout (arms down, running to his side), but the Spanish international gets a totally clean look at his corner three.

But observe Jackson, as Ibaka lofts his three. Jackson is in a perfect ready position to catch and shoot if Ibaka reverses the ball. Was that a better shot? Hmmm. Maybe?

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Still, Serge gets a nice look at a very makeable shot. Unfortunately for OKC,, the shot rims out. Another rebound for ZBo, and Collison is forced to foul. Well designed, well executed, bad luck.

Now, what about my second guessing?  One could say that while OKC got a wonderful look off of an unselfish play by Durant, he might have been able to take ZBo at the rim, possibly for a traditional three-point play. But Durant probably made the right play.

Instead, consider this. Remember what I was saying about the initial Ibaka screen? How, with a slight defender in Prince, sending Ibaka might not have been necessary? That's why I would have sent either Jackson or Lamb to set the down screen. That way, the left side would still have two shooters, and more importantly, two smaller help defenders for KD to attack. If Memphis decided to slide help from the right corner, OKC would have had Ibaka ready to shoot the corner three from the other side. Or, if the set played out like this, it would have been Lamb or Jackson, both better three-point shooters, in Ibaka's spot. That might have made the difference.

That's a small detail and some hindsight second guessing on my part, but that's what I get to do.  For all of the gnashing of teeth over Brooks' and OKC's late-game designs, the Thunder got an outstanding look from their ATO. It just didn't go down.

If you have an ATO to suggest, please tweet or email me with #ebeATO

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