How teams are punishing defenses for going under ball screens

More than ever before, it’s imperative that a team’s primary ball handler be able to shoot adequately from outside. The very best teams in the league over the past handful of years have all had primary creators who were either threats to pull up from beyond the arc or fit the LeBron James archetype (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons fall in this latter group). There are several teams in this year’s playoffs for which that’s not the case and those teams are perhaps bending some of the rules to get those non-shooters closer to the basket.

It’s no secret that big men get away with a lot of screens that are technically illegal. Hell, Marcin Gortat has made an entire career out of never setting a legal screen. Guys push off to start their roll early and force defenders higher up the floor, stick out shoulders and hips to give their screen that extra oomph, and slide their feet slightly to move defenders off their chosen path. It’s like holding in the NFL, it’s only illegal if it’s egregious enough to get caught. Those moves are illegal but are rarely called, but one move big men are using early in this year’s playoffs falls into more of a gray area: in a screen-and-roll, when does the screen end and the roll begin?

In the playoffs, defenses are more locked in on individual players’ weaknesses. If a guy can’t shoot, everybody on the opposing team knows it and will duck under screens when possible. This presents a unique opportunity for the offensive big man: what if, as the guard is going under the screen, he starts his roll toward the basket, essentially rolling through the guard and taking him out of the play completely? A few bigs have done that in the first few days of the 2018 playoffs and it’s had a positive effect. In Monday night’s game against Philadelphia, watch how Kelly Olynyk sets the screen for Dwyane Wade, then doesn’t even really roll toward the basket, instead rolling diagonally into Markelle Fultz to give Wade all sorts of space:

Sure, Wade isn’t the best three-point shooter, but if you let him take a rhythm dribble into a 20-footer, he’s not missing that, especially when he had it going like he did in Game 2. Fultz was following the scouting report by getting under on that screen, but Olynyk knew he was going to do so as well, creating the opportunity for the Miami big man to become a full back, clearing a path for Wade’s jumper.

DeMar DeRozan’s improved from beyond the three-point line, but Washington is still getting under screens when they can, a tactic Jonas Valanciunas exploits here:

Valanciunas steps up behind Wall on the initial screen out of the three-man weave action Toronto ran to start the play, which pushed Wall a bit further up the floor than he’d like. Wall reacted by trying to jump backwards and when Valanciunas flipped the direction of his screen to Wall’s right, it was an easier path for Washington’s point guard to duck under the screen and try to meet DeRozan on the other side, rather than fight back over. Valanciunas “rolls” to the basket through Wall’s path and DeRozan walks into an uncontested three.

Big men can get away with a lot more contact on defenders who go under their screens, under the guise of the standard hand fighting that happens all over the court. Watch how Rudy Gobert extends his arms to hold up Corey Brewer:

Brewer does a good job avoiding getting caught up by Gobert’s roll to the rim, but the extra chuck he gets from the big Frenchman slows down his recovery and forces a late switch from Steven Adams that comes too late to prevent the short jumper from Ricky Rubio. Use of the hands is an easy call higher up on the floor if the defender is going over the screen; referees are attuned to the tricks big men use against traditional pick-and-roll defense. However, when Brewer ducks under the screen, Gobert can begin the process of rolling to the basket, which allows for his hands to be away from his body.

When defenders skirt under ball screens, they’re theoretically ceding a quick jumper to the ball handler in exchange for cutting off a drive to the rim. Big men have adjusted by rolling earlier through these defenders, knowing that if they do a good enough job, they’ll clear a hole for their point guard to get to a better spot on the floor. Is it a moving screen? The answer lies in the eye of the beholder, but referees have mostly let players get away with moves like this.