‘Spain pick-and-roll’ is the en vogue basketball play and term among NBA coaches and basketball analysts. It has been the centre of many nerdy discussions this year due to the Phoenix Suns using it to great effect this season.
They are not the only team to run the play: the LA Clippers, Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers, Utah Jazz and even Sacramento Kings have been spotted running a screen-the-screener action to create successful offense.
Before Giannis Antetokounmpo made the biggest block of his career in Game 4, the Milwaukee Bucks reached a winning position by taking the Spain pick-and-roll principles that the Suns have perfected, and made their own on a crucial possession.
Spain pick-and-roll? It’s Greek to me.
Several articles have been written and videos have been made highlighting the evolution of the Spain pick-and-roll, which possibly got its name from Chris Oliver at Hoops Immersion after seeing the Spanish national team run a play of this ilk against the USA during the Olympics.
However, there is game tape of the Greek side Panathinaikos running the play during EuroLeague in the early and late 2000s – around about the time a young Greek Freak was picking up a basketball – and even some a decade before then. Now that the NBA is a more open game with less reliance on centers running a low post play, the trend has become popular in the NBA.
The 1992 Boston Celtics run a Spain pick-and-roll. pic.twitter.com/bDb6fYQUVv
A typical pick-and-roll sees four players spaced around the three-point line and the center beneath the basket. The center then runs up to the top of the perimeter, where the point guard has the basketball, and sets a screen on the point guard’s defender.
The point guard can then drive towards the basket because his defender is obstructed by the center. However, if the center’s defender steps towards the point guard to help his obstructed team-mate, the center can roll towards the basket and receive the ball from the point guard.
The Spain element is when a third player enters the play and sets another screen on the center’s defender. That way, if the center’s defender is helping the point guard’s defender, the extra screen confuses who should switch the player they are marking.
The defense has to deal with a rolling center, a driving point guard, and a third player – often a shooter – who can all be offensive threats. It fits the Phoenix Suns personnel perfectly.
The Suns immediately go to Spain pick and roll for the Ayton foul on the lob: https://t.co/M25rdWZWMH pic.twitter.com/pzuLHVIyX0
The Suns in Spain
Under the tutelage of head coach Monty Williams and the point guard wizardry of Chris Paul, the Phoenix Suns have ridden this play, and its variations, into the NBA Finals. You can make subtle changes to the angle of the second screener, or fake a double screen for the point guard before reversing the play, to get a different look and an open shot. The Suns have made the most of these throughout the season and even this series.
Williams is an excellent coach when it comes to in-game adjustments, and he and Paul have a great connection in terms of what is happening in the flow of a game. The point guard often begins contests quietly and puts his team-mates in a position to score, while he and the coach observe where the opportunities are in their oppositions’ strategy. Towards the end of the first half, the pair have identified a plan of attack and Paul starts carving those seams wide open with his own scoring.
Milwaukee Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer is more of a game-to-game adjustment coach: go into the game with a plan, and try to execute it no matter what. Then, watch film, and make adjustments for the next contest.
An example of this was the man-to-man defensive coverage the Bucks played in Game 1: the switch-everything strategy embarrassed their poor center Brook Lopez, as Paul and Devin Booker identified the strategy and took advantage of mismatches, and Deandre Ayton had a wonderful time destroying any little guy that matched up with him in the paint.
In a panic during the third quarter, the Bucks tried to swap their defense to a drop coverage, but the Suns made a quick in-game adjustment and went to that old favourite – the Spain pick-and-roll – to beat that change. So, the Bucks went back to man-to-man, switch-everything until Game 2.
The second game of the series saw Budenholzer go to a more prepared drop coverage, and while his team still lost, it was a much closer affair. In the locker room afterwards, he reiterated to the players they will get “smarter” going into the next game – a common phrase he has used after losses in these playoffs, and with good results.
Game 3 was Milwaukee’s best, as they were more disciplined, cleaned up the mistakes and executed possessions more cleanly on both ends of the court. They also made life difficult for Booker, and benefited from the support of a home crowd.
Wednesday night was a barn burner to even up the series. Budenholzer and Williams will have sets and plays in a little black book – or more likely on a nifty new iPad using custom built software – that have not been run much in public before, and the Bucks’ coach dropped one in with six minutes left to go in the game.
Milwaukee’s Spanish twist
Down four after a free throw by Jae Crowder, who again showed his role-playing brilliance for the Phoenix Suns in Game 4 by getting a clutch steal and was mauled by Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton as a reward.
The Milwaukee Bucks needed to keep their foot on the pedal as Devin Booker was out of the game with foul trouble, and it gave the defense a chance to clamp down on Chris Paul. To make the most of the opportunity, Budenholzer called a timeout and ran an off-the-ball Spain pick-and-roll play.
Giannis Antetokounmpo inbounded to Jrue Holiday, who had run off a screen from PJ Tucker on the elbow to get the ball, and a second screen from Bobby Portis at the top of the key to survey the floor. Portis stayed put while Holiday allowed the action to unfold from above the arc on the left-hand side of the court.
After setting the Holiday screen, Tucker cut towards the basket and faked a screen for Khris Middleton. Instead, Tucker turned and set a screen on the right block for Antetokounmpo, who had not moved from the right wing after inbounding the ball.
THE BLOCK is getting a lot of deserved praise from last night’s game, but this fun set a few minutes earlier is interesting, as it cut the Suns lead to just 2 points in the fourth quarter.
Bucks run an off-ball Spain action for Giannis along the baseline. Not sure where Tucker… pic.twitter.com/yEiKGhiX7R
Antetokounmpo used Tucker’s screen, then Middleton screened for Tucker and cut out to the top of the arc and was open for a split second before Suns defender Cameron Johnson recovered. It’s unclear what Tucker was meant to do as he fell in the process, and he could have been called for a moving screen while trying to get free, but ultimately, three defenders got caught up with Tucker and Middleton, and Antetokounmpo was open for possibly the easiest two-handed dunk of the game to cut the Suns lead to just two points.
Several Phoenix players looked at each other and wondered what happened. It was a case of being poisoned by their own medicine.
The Spain pick-and-roll continues to be modified and it evolves from one game to the next. How each coach uses it in the pivotal Game 5 could decide the NBA champion.
Live NBA Finals 5: Milwaukee @ Phoenix Gm5 17.07 2545
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