The longest winning streak in the NBA this season almost wasn’t. The Miami Heat carry a 17-game winning streak into their game today, the 12th longest in league history, but the Cavaliers had an opportunity to end it last Sunday after only 10 wins.
The final blow came in the game’s final minute, courtesy of a play older than Kyrie Irving and every bit as effective.
It only seems like the pick-and-roll was invented alongside the skyhook and peach baskets. In truth, it wasn’t really perfected until the Utah Jazz’s John Stockton and Karl Malone baffled teams every night with it throughout the 1990s.
Most gimmicks are eventually solved, but the pick-and-roll is just as effective today as it was 20 years ago — and it can frustrate even the best defensive player on a team, as it did the Cavs one week ago.
The Heat led the Cavs 113-111 in the final moments last Sunday when LeBron James moved to set a screen for Dwyane Wade.
Cavs coach Byron Scott wanted his players to switch on all pick-and-rolls, but Alonzo Gee — whom Scott considers the team’s best defender — failed to pick up Wade and instead stuck with James. Since Dion Waiters listened to the switch and also stayed with James, Wade had a clear path to the basket for an easy dunk and win No. 11 along the Heat’s terrific march to the postseason.
The Cavs’ problem was a mental breakdown, but that’s part of the art of the pick-and-roll. Players have only a second to respond, and the wrong move typically results in disaster. Sometimes, even the right moves do, too.
“There are so many options, there’s a counter for every defense,” Cavs guard Daniel Gibson said. “It’s a matter of if the ball-handler is smart enough and is a good enough handler to make a decision, and if the big [man] can make the jumper or make the layup.”
Pick-and-rolls, also called screen-and-rolls or simply screen rolls, are most effective when performed by a big man and a point guard. The point guard has the most important role because he initiates everything.
A quick poll of Cavs players and a few others around the league labeled the Los Angeles Clippers as the best team in the league to use the pick-and-roll, and it has more to do with Chris Paul than it does Blake Griffin.
Paul is widely considered the best point guard in the NBA, which also makes him deadly in pick-and-roll situations. The problem with the Clippers is Griffin’s inability to consistently make open jump shots. Griffin is shooting less than 37 percent this season on mid-range jumpers, part of the reason defenses can sometimes clog the paint against the Clippers to alleviate the roll and reduce Griffin to a pick-and-pop.
The San Antonio Spurs with Tony Parker at point guard were terrific at running the pick-and-roll when Tim Duncan was closer to his prime, and Gibson still lists the Spurs as a close second to the Clippers.
Wade said after the Cavs game last week he thought the Heat were difficult to defend because James and Wade running it puts opposing shooting guards and small forwards into pick-and-roll situations when it’s typically point guards and big men. An easy defense for that is for defenders to just switch, but a communication breakdown or the split second it takes for defenders to switch is sometimes all a guy like James needs to get to the basket.
“You put two really dynamic players in a pick-and-roll, it’s going to force you to commit five players to try and contain it,” said Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, widely regarded as one of the best defensive minds in the league. “You may contain the initial one, but then the ball is swung quickly to the weak side and there is another one coming on the run. You’re seeing more and more multiple pick-and-rolls on the same possession, so you may get the first one clean, then the second and third one comes, so you’re constantly being tested.”
The Cavs aren’t as good of a pick-and-roll team with Anderson Varejao out of the lineup, but Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller both have the potential to eventually be quality threats in the pick-and-roll.
Thompson spent all summer working on a mid-range game that still hasn’t developed. If he ever consistently develops a 12- to 15-foot jump shot, Thompson could be miserable for opponents to defend on the pick-and-roll because he’s left-handed and extremely athletic. He is already capable of finishing with either hand, but is missing the jump shot component to really scare defenses.
Zeller already has great range for a 7-footer, but needs more muscle and aggressiveness in setting screens and getting to the basket.
The most important ingredient, however, is already in place with Irving.
“He can make the right play, but he also has the ability to make the great play, too. That’s the separator,” Shaun Livingston said. “The point guards are the decision makers. They control who is going to get the shot and what kind of shot. Nine times out of 10, they decide what shot is going to be taken, if it’s a high-percentage or low-percentage shot. Even if he doesn’t get the assist, just making the right play could be the hockey assist.”
The “hockey assist” is growing in popularity around NBA circles and refers to the pass that sets up the assist in basketball. In hockey, both players are credited with assists. In the NBA, Paul is terrific at hockey assists.
“He understands how they’re playing defense and how, ‘I might not get a lot of assists, but I’m going to get the hockey assist,’ ” Livingston said.
The Cavs’ inability to defend the pick-and-roll effectively is a big reason why they are last in the league in defensive field-goal percentage. Opponents are making 47.8 percent of their shots, the NBA’s worst mark.
The Boston Celtics were one of the best teams at defending the pick-and-roll just a couple of years ago when Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo were the nucleus.
“Kevin fouls the hell out of you in most cases coming off a pick-and-roll,” Gibson said. “Rondo is all arms sometimes, so he aggravates you. When they were all together, they definitely had the best defensive team against the pick-and-roll.”
Thibodeau believes recent rule changes aimed at increasing scoring have also contributed to the game’s evolution. Centers were playing power forward and power forwards were playing small forward in Scott’s playing days during the 1980s, now the opposite is true.
Now small forwards such as James and Kevin Durant can play power forward and power forwards are usually centers, which alters the way teams defend.
“Teams have more shooting on the floor,” Thibodeau said, “and it puts more pressure on your defense.”
The Cavs insist they won’t be a legitimate contender again until they defend better and history illustrates it. Entering this season, 20 teams the past three years have allowed opponents to make at least 47 percent of their shots.
Only one of those teams made the playoffs. The New York Knicks were the sixth seed in the East in 2011 after opponents shot .472 — and the Knicks were swept out of the first round by Garnett and the Celtics.
The Cavs can’t win if they struggle on defense. The first step to improving defensively is slowing the pick-and-roll.
The first step in slowing the pick-and-roll? Good question. It’s been more than 20 years, and the best defensive minds in the league still don’t have an answer.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.