One of the biggest issues that the Los Angeles Clippers have faced to start the season has been how spotty their defense has been at times. While they are capable of locking down opponents for long stretches of play, they still have had some hiccups when facing teams that can run the pick-and-roll extremely effectively. A lot of this is because of their revamped pick-and-roll defense. In the game against the Detroit Pistons on Saturday afternoon, the team was getting lit up in the first half before making some key changes at halftime. Instead of playing the pick-and-roll conservatively, they were going to attack it similar to how they did last season.
We’re going to pick up the action in the third quarter in a minute, but before that it feels prudent to talk about just how good the Pistons are in the pick-and-roll. According to Synergy, the currently rank tied for 7th in points per possession (0.84) by ball-handlers and tied for 7th in points per possession (1.08) by roll men. The caveat is that these numbers are after they played the Clippers on Saturday afternoon, as well as after they played against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday. They ranked even higher prior to those games being played.
With all of that said, let’s start watching the footage of the game. As noted, we pick up the action roughly a minute into the second half. The Pistons are currently up by ten points and looking to take back control of a game that they should win against an undermanned Clippers squad. Up until this point, the Pistons had a 128.4 Offensive Rating in the game and were dominating. After this point, they only mustered a 74.5 Offensive Rating. So, what changed? Well, the answer is that a lot changed.
The action starts off with Reggie Jackson being guarded by Austin Rivers on the perimeter. Pistons center Andre Drummond runs up to set him a screen, and Jackson tries to sprint around the screen towards the near corner. Rivers fights over the top of the screen. While that’s happening, Jordan ushers Jackson towards the corner area to string the play out. Due to this, Jackson has to pivot and fire a cross-court pass to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the right wing. Jamal Crawford recovers nicely, and the Pistons attempt to run another pick-and-roll. As the Detroit bigs walk up to set the screen, we can hear Jordan yell out “ICE!” to Crawford so that Crawford knows what to do. Crawford forces Caldwell-Pope to the right, away from the screen, and Jordan is there to meet the ball-handler at the right elbow. Caldwell-Pope gets flustered and throws up a half-hearted pull-up jumper that completely airballs as Jordan closes in on his airspace. Clippers rebound, and the possession is over.
Quite a bit happens on this play, but it seems worthwhile to talk about all of it. Jordan does a good job of stringing Jackson along the baseline and into the corner, thus allowing Rivers to recover over the top of the screen and get back into position. Jordan then rotates back to the middle. Crawford then follows Jordan’s instructions perfectly, dodges the pick, forces the ball-handler where they want him to go, and then Caldwell-Pope thrusts up a shot he’s not comfortable with at all because of Jordan’s presence. This is one of those plays where you can really see the value that DeAndre Jordan brings to the team when he’s engaged.
A minute later, we get a little more of Caldwell-Pope as the ball-handler in the screen game. He receives the ball on the left wing from Drummond before sizing up Crawford. As this happens, Drummond squares up to set a slip screen so he can roll to the rim. Caldwell-Pope makes a power dribble to the left to get around the screen action and get downhill towards the rim. Because of the slip screen not making contact whatsoever, Crawford is able to get over the top with zero trouble. The entire time, though, we can see Jordan just waiting for the decision by the ball-handler. Jordan protects both the roll by Drummond and the possible drive to the rim by staying in perfect position. His left hand keeps in contact with Drummond while his eyes are looking at Caldwell-Pope. The drive starts and is quickly stifled as Jordan blocks the layup attempt.
The way the Clippers play this pick-and-roll isn’t entirely different from how they’ve played some of the other ones this year, except for the fact that Crawford doesn’t go under the Drummond screen. Rather, he goes over the top and forces Caldwell-Pope towards Jordan rather than giving the ball-handler space to get a clean jumper off from beyond the arc. Major props to Jordan for once again playing this excellently, as well as to Blake Griffin for rotating over onto Drummond when Jordan went for the block. Had there been a rebound off the rim, Griffin is in perfect position to grab it.
A couple minutes later, we get a really long possession. Jackson tries to beat Rivers around the right side for a possible layup attempt, but Rivers does a fantastic job of walling him off and preventing that from happening. Jackson passes out and the ball makes its way to Caldwell-Pope on the left wing. Yet another pick-and-roll is ran. Crawford sees the Drummond screen coming, steps up into the ball-handler, and forces his way over the top of the screen. Due to this, Crawford sticks with Caldwell-Pope the entire way and forces him directly into Jordan’s help defense. Marcus Morris spots that his teammate is in trouble, cuts through the baseline area, and gets a pass late in the shot clock. He has to turn and fire a difficult jumper over the outstretched hand of Jordan, but he makes it. Still, that doesn’t negate the quality of defense played on this possession.
Think about how this entire play unfolded. Austin Rivers did great by not allowing Reggie Jackson to beat him off the dribble, which in turn allowed the defense to reset. By the time the ball gets back to Caldwell-Pope on the left wing, only about 10 seconds remain on the shot clock. The Pistons don’t even go into their screen action until about 6 on the shot clock, and the Clippers snuffed it out perfectly. All that remained was a highly-contested turnaround mid-range jumper. To Morris’ credit, he nails it. However, this is beautiful defense regardless of the end result.
We now skip ahead to the fourth quarter as both teams are unable to get much going offensively. Reggie Jackson sprints down the court and receives a quick screen from Drummond. Pablo Prigioni tries to go over the top of the screen as DeAndre Jordan hedges high and hard to push the ball-handler as far away from the rim as possible. This causes Jackson to delay his pass by a half-second. Because of this, it allows Blake Griffin to recover in time on the roll by Drummond. As he receives the pass, Drummond knows he can’t just go straight up and finish so he goes into a post-up. Griffin does well to keep Drummond at bay, and eventually forces a right-handed baseline hook shot that is missed.
Really nice job by the Clippers to force a late pass by Jackson, and fantastic job by Griffin to make things tough on Drummond. However, watch the other things that happen here. As Drummond receives the pass, Austin Rivers drops down to prevent any possible pass to Anthony Tolliver. He helps the helper. That’s a crucial thing. After Jordan fully recovers, Rivers spaces out to make sure he has time to close out on Caldwell-Pope should he get the ball. The team functioned as a unit rather than individuals and this is the type of thing that you love to see.
Here, we see the Clippers snuff out two separate pick-and-rolls using two different methods. On the first one, Rivers goes over the top of the Drummond screen and Jordan hedges on it to push Jackson away from a comfort zone. This extra time wasted forces Jackson to pass into the corner instead of the middle of the floor. The ball is then passed back to the top of the arc to reset the possession. Yet again, a pick comes up to be set. Instead of hedging this time, the Clippers opt to switch as Griffin and Wesley Johnson switch assignments. This forces the ball to be rotated back to the left wing and then dumped into Drummond for yet another post-up. Drummond sizes up Jordan then sprints into a right-handed hook shot that yet again misses.
There are multiple ways to defend against screen action. On this one possession, we see two of them. As noted, the Clippers opt to hedge with Jordan on the first screen but then switch with Griffin and Johnson on the second screen. These kinds of options make so much more sense than just dropping underneath a screen entirely or allowing a ball-handler to get downhill towards the helping big man. By forcing a ball-handler to adjust to you rather than letting the ball-handler forcing you to adjust, you dictate how the game and tempo will be played. This is how to do it.
Reggie Jackson has the ball here against Austin Rivers as Andre Drummond runs up to set a screen. As Drummond comes to set the screen, Rivers shifts his stance to prevent Jackson from being able to turn the corner to the right. This now forces Jackson to the left and towards the help defense. The screen is set so high up above the arc that it allows Jordan to hedge at the right wing and force Jackson to the left. As Jackson drives to the rim, Jordan stays right on his hip and forces a highly difficult shot that is missed wildly. This is how you play against the pick-and-roll. If you sit back on this play, it allows the ball-handler time to breathe. You can’t give them that option. Well played.
On this final play, we see how the Clippers choose to play another pick-and-roll. The action starts with Detroit running a double-high pick-and-roll, much like how the Clippers like to run. The screen comes from Ersan Ilyasova and it means that Blake Griffin becomes the primary defender on this play after the Clippers opt to switch on the screen. Rivers takes Ilyasova and follows him through the paint well enough to force Jackson into an isolation situation. As it unfolds, Jackson attempts to take Griffin off the dribble, but Griffin does a wonderful job of forcing Jackson towards the baseline without reaching in with his hands. Jackson steps on the baseline and the Clippers force a turnover due to this.
There are many ways to defend screen-and-roll action these days. Through the first ten games of the season, the Clippers have repeatedly tried to sag off of ball-handlers and let them dictate what happens. The goal was to force them into mid-range jumpers, therefore meaning there’d be less threes given up. While that’s all well and good, the Clippers were still giving up a ridiculous amount of wide open looks to capable shooters. You can’t do that.
In this game alone, the Clippers altered how they played the pick-and-roll. It’s hard to say whether or not there was a discussion that took place at halftime about this very thing, but the team certainly came out in the second half with a newfound respect for defense and a better plan of attack against pick-and-rolls. From now on, this is how they have to do it. They can’t sit back and let an offense dictate what’s going to happen. Rather, the Clippers need to aggressively hedge against the ball-handler and then have the helpers know their roles and do their jobs.
One of the key things to take away from this game was that DeAndre Jordan did a lot of hedging in the second half while Blake Griffin merely switched when he defended in the screen game. This could be because Griffin’s athleticism and defensive ability is better suited for one-on-one situations while Jordan’s length is perfect for disrupting ball-handlers. That will be something to watch going forward. All in all, this second half defensive effort should be a huge feather in the team’s cap. This is the type of stuff that should be happening nightly – at least from a schematic standpoint.