Combating Top-Lock

I wrote yesterday about the Utah Jazz’s physicality with Paul George in their Game 2 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder and a few of the Thunder’s adjustments to take advantage of Utah’s aggressiveness. No team has been more aggressive defensively in these playoffs than the Miami Heat and they were able to muck up Game 2 themselves to win home-court advantage in their series with the Philadelphia 76ers. They used some of the same strategies employed by the Jazz, including top-locking shooters like J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli to take away three-point shots off simple wide pindowns. Running these two off down screens is a big part of the 76ers’ offense, so Miami’s guards were heavily focused on getting over screens early and making sure Redick and Belinelli were forced to go in a different direction.

As discussed yesterday, top-lock is a defensive strategy that puts the defender between the shooter and the screener but can yield backdoor cuts. Top-lock can be an effective strategy against shooters who aren’t particularly good finishers or by teams who have quality rim protection in case the shooter does go to the rim. Philadelphia found a different way to combat it: rather than cutting backdoor for a layup, they would use a second screener to set a pseudo-flex screen for the shooter, who would then curl around to get back to the three-point line and pop out behind a second screen for a three-pointer:

Redick starts in the right corner and as soon as Joel Embiid steps toward him, Tyler Johnson jumps over the incoming screen to perform the top-lock. Rather than fighting through it, Embiid flips the direction on his screen and Redick moves toward the rim. Johnson has to follow him; otherwise it’s an easy layup or Redick escapes out the other side for a three in the left corner. Once Redick has Johnson on his back, then it’s just the same as normal defense, where Johnson will have to trail Redick through the second screen from Ben Simmons. Advantage 76ers.

Philadelphia ran similar action two more times in Game 3 for Belinelli to get three-pointers, but Miami sniffed them out well. Of course, that didn’t stop Belinelli from vomiting the shot up anyway:

In both instances, Belinelli was able to shake off the top-lock by cutting toward the hoop first, then curling around back to the outside. It was a point of emphasis for the Heat to top-lock both of Philadelphia’s key shooters. To be fair to Belinelli, it looks like he might have been fouled on at least one, if not both, of these plays, but tight defense has never deterred him from shooting these off-balance threes in the past.

Top-lock has gotten more popular throughout the NBA as teams are constantly becoming more perimeter-oriented and using wide pindowns to open three-point shots, curls to the rim, or just to get the ball to their best pick-and-roll ball handler and offenses are constantly looking for ways to stay ahead of the defense and retain their inherent advantage. A lot of coaches have their guys fight through the top-lock, since it’s more likely to be called a foul on the defense if things get too physical, but in the playoffs, referees can loosen up a bit more. The 76ers have found a different answer; one that doesn’t rely on the physicality of their shooters nor on the officials to blow their whistles but on the strength of their screeners and the quick, darting movements of those shooters.