There is nothing quite like the NBA postseason. This time around, even at the tail end of a trying season, the product on display has been as exceptional as ever. However, for Minnesota Timberwolves fans, every young star putting on their first playoff showcase or nail-biting finish to a game comes with the bitter reminder that their team has been invited to the playoff party just once in the last 16 years.
Even so, that doesn’t mean those fans, along with the Wolves’ players and coaching staff, can’t find fragments of postseason play to help wet the Wolves palette somewhat. There have been plenty of intriguing intricacies in the first round of this year’s postseason, and one that has stood out has been the art of the most common play in basketball: the pick-and-roll. In particular, how great modern offense’s have become at using roll men to scatter blitzing or hedging pick-and-roll defense.
Before you can put the microscope over what the rollers do these days, you have to start with the ball handler. Specifically, the ability to hit pull-up 3-pointers, a skill that can build the foundation for a dangerous team offense on its own.
When a player can punish defenses from deep off simple high screen scenarios, coverages must be altered — usually gearing more defenders’ attention toward the shooting threat — and. in turn, teammates get cleaner looks as the defensive shell scrambles to stop the off-the-dribble shooting threat.
The best way to leverage pull-up shooting weapons into looks for others is a big who holds weight as a roll-man finisher, but can also make quick playmaking reads while rumbling to the rim. Within that space is where Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic operate and thrive. And, despite coming up against the pudgy world-destroyer that is Nikola Jokic, the pairing has dragged an inconsistent Blazers squad to a competitive Western Conference series.
Lillard, of course, is one of the most devastating off-the-bounce shooters the league has ever seen. With that ability in tow, it’s a death knell to try and defend him with a drop scheme (where the big defender drops back to guard the roller and the inside the arc). Unless Lillard is being pressed by both the point-of-attack and the big defender, the result is a scorched net.
So, the obvious adjustment is to get the big up to the level of the screen, and sometimes even higher. By doing that, you force the ball-handler into tougher looks or, ideally, get the ball out of his hands completely. However, the immense pull-up shooting gravity Lillard has allows his screener to twist out of the action and move freely behind the swarming defenders, and that’s how a smart decision-making roll-man can still warp an opposing defense and create open looks outside of the ball screen action.
Here’s a visual breakdown:
When you have a pull-up shooter who commands attention well beyond the arc and a roller who can make plays for others, this jab-and-cross principle can be infused into any offensive system. Over in the Eastern Conference, Trae Young and his Atlanta Hawks have been displaying their pick-and-roll prowess with the precision of a neurosurgeon.
Even more so than Lillard’s Blazers, Young has a dangerous ensemble of roll men around him, namely Clint Capela and John Collins. Amongst other reasons, the triumvirate’s ability to hammer opponents with screening actions is why the Hawks have a +9.26 net rating with all three on the floor together.
With Bogdan Bogdanovic and DeAndre Hunter able to space the floor from the corners, Atlanta head coach Nate McMillan has found prudent ways to get both Capela and Collins involved in the middle of the floor — ways that have already paid dividends in a playoff setting.
Have a look at this fun wrinkle that set up an easy crunch time bucket. Again, it all begins with Young’s shooting gravity and Collins’ ability to make a quick and accurate read out of the short roll:
On the other end of the floor, it’s becoming increasingly evident that New York’s lack of an off-the-dribble threat has hindered their ability to involve the struggling Julius Randle in similar actions. For all the good work Derrick Rose has done in a Knicks jersey since arriving via trade, he isn’t someone who shoots it from deep well enough to force defenders to blitz him out of pick-and-roll.
In this example, Hunter feels comfortable going under the pick and recovering back to Rose without the long-ball getting teed up, which means Capela can backpedal and find the roller. Rose won’t pull from deep and Hunter has effectively cut off his driving lane, so the ball eventually finds Randle. By that stage, the defense is set in concrete and Randle is left stuck between the hammer and the anvil trying to make a play.
So, we’ve established that it’s important, but how does pull-up shooting and short-roll passing relate to the Timberwolves? Well, they have D’Angelo Russell who, despite clearly not residing in the pantheon of point guards discussed so far, is a dangerous pull-up shooter in his own right and possesses the passing ability to match it. You can’t build a penthouse without a lobby, and Russell is a respectable foundation for this kind of action.
Russell is one of just 13 players to have attempted at least three pull-up 3-pointers per game and connect on better than 37 percent of those shots, per NBA.com’s tracking data. He also shot 35.4 percent (74-209) on deep 3-point attempts (greater than 25 feet). Essentially, Russell has no qualms about punishing drop coverage defense by launching from deep.
No conversation about the Timberwolves and their future offense would be complete without a mention of Anthony Edwards, who exhibited the ability to bury pull-up triples at a high clip in his post-All Star break breakout. Keeping with the qualifier of at least three off-the-bounce 3-point attempts per game, only seven players nailed those looks at a better percentage (38.7 on 3.9 3PA) than Ant-Man coming out of the mid-season holiday.
Edwards doesn’t have the passing ability of a Russell, Lillard or Young, but he has shown the ability to make the right reads when he is the victim of a targeted pick-and-roll blitz. Although, with his spotty shooting on the season overall, it was rare that teams didn’t duck under the screen and drop their big against Edwards to dare him to shoot. Should he pick up where he left off next season, the scouting report will quickly change.
Partnering the Russell/Edwards pairing is obviously franchise tentpole Karl-Anthony Towns. The 25-year-old has seen linear progression in his playmaking ability throughout his career and is always a threat going downhill in any capacity. Theoretically, KAT should provide the perfect outlet to defenses having to blitz Russell and/or Edwards and stop them hurting them from deep, as both scorers and facilitators.
It’s hard to find many examples of Minnesota executing it the same way that Portland and Atlanta did in the previous clips but, Ideally, integrating something like this into Minnesota’s offensive diet would really open up another efficient scoring avenue:
So far, those plays are few and far between. Short-roll passing reads are something that has yet to become a staple of Minnesota’s offense under Tom Thibodeau, Ryan Saunders or Chris Finch, and there are a few reasons for that. The first is that Towns has starred as a facilitator out of the post, at the elbow or from the top of the arc. That’s where he gets the majority of his touches and most of his assists come from whipping the ball to cutters or shooters from those three areas of the floor. Obviously, the coaching staff (who are much smarter than this blogger) have identified that KAT can impact the game more from those regions.
Towns also isn’t really much of a roll man. Unless the seas part and allow a gaping hole for him to dive into, After he screens, Towns is going to spend most of his time leveraging his own shot-making and shooting gravity as a pick-and-pop gunner. The numbers back it up, according to Synergy Sports, Towns only had 52 possessions all season where he rolled to the rim out of a screen.
It makes sense, Towns has thrived offensively wherever he has been deployed throughout his six seasons, and he held a 58.7 percent effective field goal percentage on pick-and-pop jumpers this season, so there is absolutely no harm in the coaching staff hammering that scoring route. But, that doesn’t mean new wrinkles can’t be wedged into his game to aid Minnesota’s offense even further. Especially simple and common ones that have proven effective under the bright lights of the playoffs.
With his still relatively new sidekicks, some effective shooters like Malik Beasley and Jaden McDaniels, and a coach who is still learning where to best place his chess pieces, trying to incorporate more short-roll passing reads against hedging or blitzing pick-and-roll defense is a shrewd move. These playoff games should be more than entertainment. From top to bottom, this should be a learning experience for the Timberwolves organization.