Containing high-powered offensive weapons in the NBA often starts away from the point of attack, before a play really even starts. Make a scorer uncomfortable before he catches the ball, and he might become less threatening when he makes his move. Against elite shooters, that process often involves denying access to the screens and cuts that make them so dangerous — “top-locking,” in basketball parlance. The technique, by definition, inverts the conventional wisdom of man-to-man defense, which emphasizes staying between the offensive player and the basket. But as the 3-point line has become more of a weapon, defenses have become tuned to take it away.
In these playoffs, off-ball workers like Klay Thompson and J.J. Redick have hardly been allowed an inch of space and have been forced to find alternatives to simply streaking off screens and firing open jumpers. Both shooters are lethal when allowed to curl around screens into catch-and-shoot 3s; getting so much as a step on their man can create a monumental advantage. As their defenders have insisted on taking away the top side, Thompson and Redick have been forced to find counters. Often times, that can be as simple as taking what a defense concedes. Already being shaded toward the basket, smart cutters like Redick and Thompson have found success darting backdoor or fading toward the baseline:
Thompson times that cut well, but Wilson Chandler lays far enough off of Shaun Livingston to rotate in time to affect the shot. Later in the quarter, Draymond Green finds Thompson on a similar action, but first waves Alfonso McKinnie away to clear Thompson’s side of the floor of any help defenders:
Redick, while capable finishing around the rim, isn’t likely to finish over or through rim protectors, so often he uses the backdoor cut as a setup. When he reverses course on this play, Harris has no choice but to trail, which pulls Brooklyn’s entire defense to his side of the floor. As the Nets watch the ball, Simmons sneaks in for the follow:
In the 6-foot-7 Thompson’s case, teammates can simply throw over the top of smaller defenders, and he is adept at using his physicality to nudge defenders away from him:
Thompson also has the luxury of picking his spots in the Warriors offense, which features two of the three best players on Earth. Redick, meanwhile, is more intentionally involved in Philly’s operation, galvanizing a motion-centric offense by sprinting off of screens and causing defensive panic with off-ball movement. Impede his motion, and the rest of Philadelphia’s stars become considerably less comfortable. Against Brooklyn, the 76ers have countered top-locking on Redick with a clever inversion of pin-down actions involving multiple off-ball screens to pry him loose. As Joe Harris prevents Redick from coming off of Ben Simmons’ outside hip, as he normally would, Redick uses the other side of the pick to put Harris on his tail and create the separation he needs to receive a handoff from Greg Monroe:
The first screen isn’t designed to get Redick open, only to put him in position to be open off the next screen. Later in Game 3, the Sixers used the gargantuan Boban Marjanović in the same action to give Redick a head of steam before taking a handoff from Simmons:
The Simmons-Redick dribble-handoff has become a feature of Philly’s offense, as Simmons is a physical screener and expert decision maker, and Redick the sort of shooter that can rise and fire on the move. With defenders on his top side, Redick will effectively use Simmons’ man as a screener, while defenders lay far enough off of Simmons that Redick is left all alone once he curls into open space:
On other occasions, Redick will set up to go one way – putting his man on that side of his body – before darting the other way as the defender frantically chases from behind:
While the Nets and Clippers have been fairly successful in limiting the individual production of Thompson and Redick – both of whom are averaging under their season averages in points and 3-point attempts in the first round – the gravity those two possess has warped the defenses attempting to stop them, and their commitment to moving without the ball has helped catalyze their teams’ offenses. A defense can only take away so much, and the lengths to which opponents will go to limit Redick and Thompson speaks to their value. With their respective teams each holding 3-1 leads, both have opponents struggling to keep up.