We traditionally recognize the creative offensive brilliance of various coaches and teams with our "ATO of the Week." Offense is always more fun. At least that's what I told every coach I ever played for from elementary school through university.
However, there is also creative defense coming out of an after-timeout situation. Oftentimes, it's based on solid advance scouting of the opposition. But it can also be something as simple as a change in a matchup or mixing up your traditional defensive scheme.
Fans across the NBA know that the Indiana Pacers are all about defense. Coach Frank Vogel (aka Frank Grimes) has staked the Pacers' defensive reputation on some bedrock principles that are perfectly suited to Indy's personnel: protect the rim without fouling, take away high-value three-pointers, do not switch, do not double-team the post, try to fight over screens and drop or zone your big into the key on pick-and-roll coverage. Simple and effective given the presence and defensive IQ of Roy Hibbert, David West, Paul George, George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Danny Granger, etc.
This week's "ATO of the Week" focuses on the defensive side of the ball, courtesy of a suggestion from reader Panagiotis Firtinidis. A Greek dude from Switzerland who loves basketball. The interweb truly is an amazing place.
February 7, 2014: Blazers 103, Pacers 103, 8.3 seconds left in fourth quarter. Blazers ball.
Following a crazy Indiana sequence to tie the game that included a brick, an offensive rebound, a kick-out and a very difficult George Hill three-pointer, Portland calls timeout and chooses to advance the ball into the frontcourt.
The Trail Blazers set up in a four-man line across the top of the key. Coach Terry Stotts has used this basic alignment multiple times this season and spun a variety of interesting looks out of a stock side out of bounds. However, with 8.3 seconds remaining in a tie game, the Pacers do not have to worry about any quick-hitting or "need a three" plays that would necessitate switching all screens. So, the first Indiana defensive adjustment is simply keeping Roy Hibbert in the game, unlike in certain other infamous situations.
Indiana also chooses to stay with the same individual matchups it has used throughout the fourth quarter. David West is on Nicolas Batum, the man inbounding the ball. Hibbert sticks with LaMarcus Aldridge, the first man in the Portland conga line.
The most interesting matchup, though, is Paul George, the prototype long and strong wing defender, playing against Damian Lillard. Indiana had stuck with this matchup for most of the game, eschewing the traditional point guard coverage. In fact, more teams are going with a bigger defender on Lillard and moving their point guards onto wing players.
The Pacers round out their marking assignments with Hill taking rookie C.J. McCollum and Granger picking up Wes Matthews. The ATO dance card is now set.
Portland begins its action by peeling Matthews off the back of the line on a ball cut, which then turns into a curl back to the key before he clears out to the corner. Granger trails and stays relatively attached, but knows this move is just the setup to the plot. Ironically enough, Batum could have hit Wes with a crisp little pass for a layup.
McCollum cuts next, brushing off Lillard and Aldridge on a cut to the ball-side corner. Hill trails, but is definitely not locked on C.J.'s hip. Again, Batum probably could have hit the rookie for a layup if C.J. had curled hard.
With the preliminaries out of the way, we move into the main part of the action. Lillard brushes off an awkward (moving) Aldridge screen and receives Batum's inbounds pass about four feet from the center line. After passing the ball, the Frenchman slides inbounds and takes up a spot on the wing. At this point, Portland appears ready to run a garden-variety high pick-and-roll with Lillard and Aldridge.
Here is where the Indiana defensive adjustment(s) start coming into play. As LA begins to position himself for his high screen, Hibbert remains attached. In fact, Hibbert uses both hands to slightly push LaMarcus on his hip and try to drive the screen that much higher. That is much different from the usual Hibbert pick-and-roll coverage. Usually, Roy would give space and set up at the foul line area to cut off the basket, even on a high pick-and-roll. In this case, time and place are obviously crucial to the change in Hibbert's coverage. The Pacers don't want Lillard beating them with a jumper.
George basically plays the action straight up, not pushing Lillard dramatically to one side or the other. As Aldridge sets his screen, Hibbert releases from his big and begins to aggressively (for him) show on the driving Lillard. This is probably the first time all season that I've seen Hibbert play a pick-and-roll in this fashion. This is how the Miami Heat play pick-and-roll: NOT the Indiana Pacers and especially NOT Roy Hibbert.
Paul George goes under the LaMarcus screen and then under Hibbert, who is now playing the ball. This is known as a "show and under," when you slide under both the offensive man's screen and your own teammate.
As the high pick-and-roll action moves into gear, you'll also notice that West has rotated off of Batum and taken up a deep nail position in the key. Granger has stayed tight in the strong-side corner on Matthews. This is one bedrock defensive principle that Indy will not be changing on this ATO sequence. Farthest from the ball, Hill splits the distance between McCollum in the corner and Batum on the wing. He has now "gapped" the difficult cross-court and diagonal pass.
For some unexplained reason, Lillard chooses to give up his dribble in the face of the humungous double-team that has floated his way. Because of Hibbert's size, the pass to Aldridge rolling in the key is not an option. Batum recognizes this and pops back to the area between the top of the key and the three-point line. But more importantly, Hill also recognizes the pass is coming and is closing out hard on Batum's catch and shoot.
The little things so often make a difference defensively. Watch as Hill closes out with his left hand specifically. This places him on the right side, the shooting side, of Batum. Outstanding.
Before the ATO began, ESPN analyst Jon Barry correctly predicted that Portland would try to run a high screen-and-roll. He also made particular mention of how Indiana needed to take the ball out of Lillard's hands and rotate a man hard to LaMarcus Aldridge. Game. Set. Match. Jon Barry. (I mention this only because Mr. Barry takes a whole lot of abuse from fans and basketball people alike. Deserved, most of the time, but I have to give him props in this case.)
This shows that ATO wizardry can extend to defense as well. By keeping the defensive instructions simple and tweaking your traditional defensive scheme, you can give your players the little advantage that messes up the best-laid offensive ATO plans. Job well done, Frank Vogel.