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The Great LeBron Slip-Screen Threat

by Couper Moorhead

When the Miami HEAT played the Indiana Pacers last postseason, one of the key considerations in projecting that series – once Chris Bosh went down in Game 1 with an abdominal injury – was how the Pacers would defend Miami’s high pick-and-roll when Shane Battier and LeBron James slotted up a position to power forward. With only Roy Hibbert left to defend Miami’s primary pick-setters, how would Indiana make up for his lack of speed and keep ballhandlers out of the lane?

The solution for Frank Vogel, it turned out, was to simply concede the middle portion of the court and have Hibbert sit in the paint, just below the free-throw line, and basically ‘catch’ anyone that attacked the rim. This, in addition to Dwyane Wade having his worst game of the playoff in Game 3, stymied Miami for a couple of games, but eventually the (likely necessary) strategy of rolling out the red carpet for ballhandlers to waltz into the paint, using the simplest of basketball actions, was too much for Indiana to overcome.

The Brooklyn Nets are in a similar position with Brook Lopez, and they made a similar decision. While Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans will hedge out on ballhandlers as is typical of many professional defenses, Lopez squares up, fills as much space as possible and waits. It hasn’t translated into a Top 10 defense for Brooklyn, but there are always going to be matchups that don’t offer a perfect solution.

Wednesday night, however, Brooklyn took this to an entirely new level. Not only was Lopez ‘catching’ the ballhandler when he was the primary big defender, he was doing this as the help defender as well. And while it may not have been the main reason behind Miami’s 36-14 third quarter, but it probably didn’t help.

Take this third-quarter possession, for example. Mario Chalmers and LeBron James are setting up one of the many side pick-and-rolls they ran in this period:

With Lopez pulled across the paint by Chris Bosh, Gerald Wallace is in position to be the primary defender when Chalmers attempts to turn the corner. But when James makes contact with Deron Williams, Wallace is four-feet behind the action, watching it develop.

The best explanation for this is that Wallace is being extremely cautious with James, and it would be tough to fault him for that. Most of the small forwards Wallace defends aren’t typically involved in actions as the primary screen-setter, so this isn’t a situation that comes up every night. When Dorell Wright and Carmelo Anthony set picks in the past, Wallace hedged out on the ballhandler as per usual, but in a recent game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook reminded us that there’s no party quite like a slip-screen party, Wallace was similarly cautious, setting up well back of the action.

This positioning allows both Nets defenders to effectively bypass the screen, with Wallace running out to the wing with Durant and preventing forward momentum. Since the HEAT have many offense packages that feature slip-screens from the likes of James, Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade, it makes sense for Brooklyn to prepare for Miami the same way it did for Oklahoma City. James will slip, and on the following possession, Wallace’s positioning prevented James from gaining an advantage:

The hitch is that Miami’s sets feature slip-screens – when the player essentially fakes setting a pick and curls out into open space – but they aren’t designed for them. Erik Spoelstra has set his players up to make dynamic reads. If their defender is trailing, they slip, but they can just as soon set a hard pick, as Allen has routinely demonstrated this season in those end-of-half plays that run him up to the top of the key.

So James doesn’t slip on the original possession, and instead makes contact with Williams, giving Chalmers enough separation to get in front and dart into the lane.

Wallace, meanwhile, watches. Frozen.

The burden is now back on Lopez, only instead of playing just below the free-throw line he has to release Bosh – setting a screen himself for Wade – and come up from the low end of the floor. Here, Chalmers hits a floater, and while the principle to give up space to Chalmers in order to take away options from James, Chalmers showed in that Pacers series that this is a situation he can take advantage of. Not to mention the fact that Wallace turns his head completely away from James, who could cut to the rim freely if he elected to do so.

This wasn’t a one-time deal, either. It happened over and over with multiple defenders, either with James, Allen or even Bosh (with Keith Bogans and Reggie Evans also working the same scheme as Wallace) setting a pick. The threat of slip-screen ruination – apparently – opening the doors to the painted area.

The HEAT didn’t score on every one of these possessions, but it’s tough to argue that the ballhandler wasn’t being handed an opportune situation in just about every one of them. And in combination with the style of defense Lopez is forced to play when he is the primary defender, and the Nets are conceding driving space to Miami ballhandlers on a relatively large portion of a game’s possessions.

That’s hardly a death knell should these teams meet in the playoffs, but if the Nets employ the same tactics in a seven-game series – and James reads the situation as well as he did Wednesday – they’ll be giving up valuable turf.