Defending the New York Screenplay

Defending the New York Screenplay
by Couper Moorhead

It's unfair to reduce a complex production to one or two key elements. Zero Dark Thirty is a wonderful movie featuring precise and surgical direction, a tight and focused script and hours upon hours of work from the maestros in the costume, set design and special effects departments. It took thousands of small components -- many of which you probably didn't even notice on first viewing -- coming together to craft the film, and without them the product is lesser for it.

But in the end the movie hinges on the performance of Jessica Chastain. If Chastain doesn't nail that role right down to the haunting final seconds, it affects everything around her. All those other elements are good enough to sustain a certain level of quality, but it's Chastain's performance that pushes the movie to greatness.

Sometimes -- depending on the matchup -- an NBA playoff series will have a similar makeup. And if the Miami HEAT and New York Knicks meet in the postseason, there will be a Jessica Chastain right at the center of everything: the high pick-and-roll.

While the primary focus is the Tyson Chandler pick-and-roll, with Amar'e Stoudemire playing more center this season and Carmelo Anthony often running those pick-and-rolls it's the action itself, not only the personnel, that is key to unlocking New York's historic -- they're taking the most threes per game than anyone ever -- perimeter game.

This was true last season as well, but the Knicks have vastly upgraded the passing from their ballhandlers with Raymond Felton and especially Jason Kidd more capable of beating Miami's help rotations with a well-placed ball than anyone on the roster during the playoffs last year, when the simple act of fronting Anthony in the post stymied an entire offense. Now, when the offense is at its best as it was Sunday against Miami, the ball whips around the perimeter after the initial screen action as the Knicks probe for passing angles to either the big man diving to the rim or to the shooters whose defenders were drawn into the middle of the floor.

This upgrade alone makes New York a greater threat to Miami, but it hasn't changed how important the high pick-and-roll is to the offense. Stop the pick-and-roll, and you stop the Knicks.

Fittingly enough, the HEAT put forth an uneven but solid, particularly late, performance defending the action in question and the result was an uneven but solid victory.

Early in the fourth quarter the Knicks offered a strong example of what they had used to hold a lead on Miami for the first three periods, starting out of one of their most basic formations:

Shooters, shooters and more shooters are on the floor for New York, and the Knicks will almost always have one in the weakside corner and one on the wing opposite the ball -- standard spacing positions that just about any team uses. But rather than also placing a shooter in the strongside corner as the HEAT regularly do themselves, the Knicks have their third supporting player, in this instance J.R. Smith, play out wide on the free-throw line extended.

This might seem like the Knicks are clogging the area around the ball, but they're actually placing a greater burden on the defense by loading up the high side of the floor. Basically, they're trying to make Shane Battier, or anyone else playing that strongside shooter, as miserable as possible.

Battier is presented with two immediate threats. As Stoudemire sets the screen and Chris Andersen hedges out on Anthony, Stoudemire dives to the rim with an intended pass going right past Battier. Erik Spoelstra wants Battier to 'chuck' here -- slide into Stoudemire's path and basically bump him to slow him up and give Andersen time to recover in the middle of the floor -- but if Battier goes too early or gets hung up on Stoudemire then Smith is a quick pass away from an open, if above-the-break, three.

It's also LeBron responsibility to help cut off that passing lane to Smith as he fights over the initial screen, but ultimately the success or failure of the early stages of this pick-and-roll rests with Battier. So as Stoudemire dives, Battier makes contact.

At this point the HEAT have cut off Anthony from turning the corner off the screen while preventing both Stoudemire and any of the three shooters from collecting an easy pass. But Battier has to release Stoudemire in order to cover Smith, so Stoudemire becomes the responsibility of Ray Allen as Anthony makes a very nice bounce pass after faking the pass over the top.

The chain reaction started by the aggressive coverage on the pick-and-roll continues. Andersen has to recover as quickly as possible, but the weakside corner defender (Allen) always has to follow the strongside elbow man (Battier) in the tag-team effort to stop the dive as their teammate (Andersen) recovers to the middle, lest they want to allow a dunk.

Stoudemire keeps the ball and gets fouled, but if he had been stopped a step or two earlier and kicked out to Jason Kidd in the corner, the next rotation has to come from Norris Cole, who previous man (Felton) is then the responsibility of James.

Simply put, the HEAT want to force you to keep passing the ball, in part because a pass is obviously not a shot but a pass is also a higher risk action than a dribble. Get a team rushing those passes in anticipation of fast rotations, and you're looking at a turnover.

A few possessions later, the HEAT get beat by the ball movement they're trying to force, as Felton gets the ball to Chandler before the first level of defense -- the chuck man -- and Chandler kicks back out to the open shooter, just as Stoudemire could have done before when Allen had to leave the corner.

Smith misses the shot, but this is an ideal outcome for the Knicks.

Later, the HEAT being two separate possessions with strong ballhandler containment from Chris Bosh with two different, but ultimately positive results.

In the first, James forces the Knicks into a pick-and-roll on a short shot clock by fighting through screens and fronting Anthony on the wing -- the staple of Miami's defense last postseason. Then Bosh pushes Smith back, disrupting the timing necessary to get Chandler the ball early, and James properly manages the Chandler-Anthony spacing by essentially faking, or slipping, the chuck on Chandler and closing on Anthony.

A few rotations later and the Knicks are trying to beat the buzzer.

The second time, Bosh stops Felton in his tracks but Felton makes a great pass to Chandler down the middle of the floor -- the type of pass New York almost never had out of a pick-and-roll in the playoff series -- after the Battier chuck*. But this time James is the baseline help.

*Notice also how Kidd shuffles up the floor from the corner to the wing after Battier makes the elbow rotation, simply to give Felton a shorter, more direct passing option.

"As the game goes on you understand sort of the rhythm of what the team is looking for," Battier said. "We were able to adjust some of our spacing and play it better. It took us a while to figure it out. You understand a certain play that’s been beating you an entire game by the fourth quarter."

Soon after this, with Miami playing the single-screen action well, Mike Woodson goes to his triple-screen set out of a timeout. And Miami has it well scouted, leaving the Knicks with nothing more than Kidd trying to dribble drive out of isolation.

The HEAT were hardly perfect, as it is almost impossible to be so when the Knicks were moving the ball as well as they were Sunday -- possibly New York's best offensive game on process alone in weeks.

On consecutive possessions, Bosh showed how important the initial big man defender is, first hedging too wide on Felton and conceding the middle of the floor, the overcompensating and giving Felton too much of an edge on the outside. In each instance a single breakdown puts a wrench in the system, the help defenders on the baseline not wanting to leave their assigned shooters in order to help in the middle.

The Knicks stick with what was working, but Bosh doesn't make the same mistake a third time, and as a side result Anthony doesn't touch the ball because New York is running things through Felton.

Felton still draws a foul on a somewhat wild drive, but the HEAT play this pretty well as Battier helps on Chandler despite being on the weakside because Wade's man sticks in the corner, giving Wade a poor angle on the chuck.

We just threw a lot of video at you, but it was for good reason. Every single one of those clips was from the last eight minutes or so of a close game, and every one of those possessions kicked off with a high pick-and-roll of some sort. Especially against the HEAT, with Anthony's post game being taken away by the front, this is New York's primary weapon. If you stop this action, you stop the Knicks.

"I think it’s the toughest play to stop in the NBA because Chandler is the best roller," Battier said. "It’s a lot of pressure on you in a lot of different ways. You have to be really dialed in. We were dialed in in the fourth quarter."

But if the Knicks get an Oscar-worthy performance out of their Jessica Chastain, then anything can happen.


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