When a coach has a single all-world offensive talent on their team, the offense can sometimes devolve into isolation basketball, especially late in playoff games when that coach wants to rely upon his superstar as much as possible. If you’re Mike D’Antoni in Houston, that doesn’t change whether the Rockets are playing Game 1 against Minnesota or a random February game in Orlando; they’re an iso-heavy team who is going to rely on the individual brilliance of James Harden and Chris Paul to carry them. If you’re Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota, it doesn’t change either; Karl-Anthony Towns isn’t going to lead your team in shots or touches, because why would you give the ball to Towns when you have Derrick Rose and Jamal Crawford, right? In New Orleans, Alvin Gentry mixes things up: Anthony Davis gets his share of isolations and post-ups, but a lot of his work comes in the general flow of the offense, which is mostly dictated from Gentry on the bench. It’s relatively rare to see the Pelicans roll out the ball without a specific play call and Game 1 against Portland was no different. New Orleans trotted out a lot of different concepts to keep the Trail Blazers off balance en route to their 97-95 victory.
The Pelicans are well known for their love of the Spain pick-and-roll, in which the offense brings a third man into the action who sets a back screen on the screener’s defender in order to cause chaos among the three defenders involved. New Orleans runs more Spain pick-and-roll than almost anybody in the league and given their specific personnel, it makes sense why: Rajon Rondo can’t shoot but has a basketball IQ so high we haven’t invented numbers to describe it, Davis is a terror rolling down the lane as a lob threat for Rondo, and the Pelicans have an army of shooters who can hit the back screen and pop to the three-point line, from Nikola Mirotic to E’Twaun Moore to Ian Clark. Creating chaos and letting Rondo find the opening in the defense is exactly what New Orleans wants to do with they run this action.
In the fourth quarter, we saw Spain pick-and-roll no fewer than seven times from New Orleans as they went to their favorite play to close the game:
I wrote earlier this year about how teams are evolving their Spain pick-and-roll to keep the defense off balance; the Pelicans would do well to vary up their dummy action to try to fool the Trail Blazers as much as they can. Their standard Spain pick-and-roll is on film and Portland was ready for it, but bringing in some initial disguising action would put the defense off balance. New Orleans scored just six points on their seven Spain pick-and-rolls in the fourth quarter on Saturday and as the series wears on, the Trail Blazers will get better at defending it.
Gentry sprinkled in some other set plays to keep Portland on their toes. They ran Wedge Roll a few times, using the aggressiveness of the Portland defense against them. Watch how CJ McCollum, Pat Connaughton, and Damian Lillard all sneak a peek over their left shoulders and jump over the screen before it arrives, allowing Davis to flip the screen to the baseline:
Jumping over the screen in what’s called “ice”, or “down”, defense keeps the ball on the side of the floor but cedes a baseline drive to the point guard. When Davis flips the screen, Rondo has an even larger advantage, because his defender is even further behind the play than he normally would be, and the Trail Blazers’ big man still has to worry about Davis rolling to the basket for an easy finish. Additionally, the initial wedge screen forces the big man defender slightly out of position before the side pick-and-roll takes place, which throws Portland off further.
After five straight Spain pick-and-rolls after calling a timeout at the nine-minute mark of the fourth quarter, Gentry went with something a little different with about five minutes left in the game and an 11-point lead. Rondo, Davis, and Mirotic were all involved again, but this time Mirotic and Davis set staggered ball screens for Rondo to come across the top of the key:
As expected, Mirotic pops and Davis rolls, but Davis isn’t rolling to score, he’s rolling to screen two defenders for Mirotic to get an open three; you can see Davis stop briefly just north of the free throw line in an attempt to occupy both Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic. Once the ball gets swung to Mirotic and Portland realizes he’ll have a wide-open three-pointer, both Aminu and Nurkic panic, leaving Davis to roll straight down the lane for a dunk.
It wasn’t always pretty, but the Pelicans had enough offense to get the job done against Portland in Game 1. They broke out all their normal tricks and relied heavily on Spain pick-and-roll to bring them home down the stretch, but that won’t work every game as the Trail Blazers adjust their defensive schemes to take away what New Orleans does best.