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Video: Manu Shreds A Defense Designed for Him

The Celtics had a plan Sunday for how to defend a Manu Ginobili high screen/roll. It didn’t work, obviously, but I’m not sure that was because the plan was flawed or because Manu Ginobili is one of the 10 or 15 best basketball players alive when he’s healthy. I’m leaning toward the latter.

The C’s have a pretty standard way of defending screen/rolls: The guy guarding the ball-handler (this is usually Rajon Rondo) fights over the screen while the big man guarding the screener either slides over to cut off penetration or jumps out to try and force the ball-handler away from the basket while Rondo recovers from the screen.

To my eyes, the C’s approach with Ginobili was essentially a super-exaggerated version of this. As soon as the man guarding Manu knew a screen was coming, he would jump to one side of the screener, positioning himself almost perpendicular to Ginobili. The idea, it appeared, was to force Ginobili the other direction, where the man guarding the screener had already sagged back to cut off penetration.

We see this on a possession from about the 10:00 mark of the 2nd quarter, with Tony Allen guarding Manu:

So, yeah. Manu was unfazed.

Here’s a still shot from that clip that illustrates the strategy I’m talking about:

DeJuan Blair has just set his screen, but Tony Allen has already jumped the screen, opened his stance and shifted over to Ginobili’s right side. The message on this play seems to be: Please go left. I don’t think the Celtics actually wanted Ginobili to go left, since he’s left-handed. But I think they wanted certainty that if he were going to drive, it was going to be in one direction, and the Celtics were going to have someone there waiting.

That someone was Glen Davis. Manu was not intimidated.

Here’s an example with the same four players in the same four roles. Watch as Tony Allen again jumps to Ginobili’s right before Blair sets the screen, in effect taking one direction away from Manu:

Same defense, another bad result for Boston.

Here’s another example from late in the 2nd quarter, this time with Rajon guarding Manu and Kevin Garnett guarding the screener (Tim Duncan):

This play illustrates what can happen when the man guarding the screener sags far back to contain Manu’s penetration: If the screener is a good jump-shooter, you’re vulnerable to a pick-and-pop.

But let’s take a closer look at this play. Almost as soon as Ginobili gets the ball, Rondo positions himself to take away Manu’s left hand and points for someone to take the other side:

It’s a decent strategy, but it doesn’t work—partly because Duncan nails Rondo with a solid screen. It appears that Rajon is expecting Antonio McDyess (being defended by Sheed on the right edge of the paint, almost in Rondo’s field of vision) to set the pick. Duncan may have caught Rondo by surprise by coming from behind him and looping around to set the screen. With Rondo in trouble, KG has to pay more attention to Manu and hold his attention there a beat longer than he’d probably like:

The result is a pretty easy look for Timmy.

The Spurs burned the C’s with this same play on the other side of the floor about two minutes later. Watch again as Rajon clearly takes one side and points for someone else to take the other:

Here’s Manu as a basketball Picasso burning the C’s again, this time with Ray Allen guarding Manu and Sheed guarding Duncan:

Ray doesn’t have a lot of time to prep for this, but it appears—at least to me—that in the limited time he does have, he opens up his stance and moves to Ginobili’s left:

This still shot looks bad. Ray is standing to Manu’s left, and, if the C’s followed the strategy they used in the other clips we’ve seen, Sheed should be standing to Manu’s right, so that the C’s have both sides covered. Except Sheed also seems to be overplaying to Manu’s left.

So Manu does what any smart player would do: He takes what the defense is giving him and starts a move to his right as Allen and Sheed scramble to catch up:

But here’s where Manu gets smart. He doesn’t just charge down the right side of the paint. Maybe that’s because he sees Rajon Rondo creeping toward the middle of the floor and KG waiting near the basket. For whatever reason, Manu takes his time and waits for Ray and Sheed to get all their momentum going to Manu’s right. At that moment, Manu stops and takes one dribble to his left. It’s hard to capture in a still shot, but that one dribble freezes Ray, Sheed and KG; they all stop and shift their weight back to Ginobili’s left. You can sort of see it here, as Manu takes that one lefty dribble:

Now Manu has everyone where he wants them. He switches directions again, crosses over to his right and bolts to the rim for the lay-up.

It’s beautiful basketball, really.

This is not to say Boston’s strategy failed every time. Here’s one possession from the 2nd quarter where it worked:

Why does it work here and not the other times? My take (and only my take; feel free to disagree): Rondo doesn’t take quite the same exaggerated position to one side of Ginobili here. He shades slightly to Manu’s left but mostly stays in front of him:

This looks a lot like Boston’s normal screen/roll defense, doesn’t it? Rondo is able to get through the screen without losing much ground, which means Sheed doesn’t have to drift too far from Duncan for too long. The result: Manu and TD are both covered, so Manu has to launch a tough cross-court pass to Richard Jefferson. Pierce rejects the corner three.

To conclude, I want to make this clear: I’m not saying the Celtics tried some radical defense that is worlds different from what they normally do. It’s not like they played a zone or something.

But they made an adjustment because of Ginobili’s presence; I prefer the idea of Ginobili adjusting to Boston’s defense, but this isn’t 2008 and Manu is awesome.

Either way, in the last week, we’ve seen pretty strong evidence that the C’s are going to experiment with superstar defenses when they face superstars.

  • Devon

    Every time you do a video breakdown it makes me incredibly happy. For this I thank you.

  • Devon

    The point here must be that one must stick the ballhandler on the high screen roll. Fighting through or forcing rotation that is the question. Fighting through risks getting leveled by a screen but forced rotation = instant mismatch, a bit of a catch 22… I guess that’s why it’s so effective.

  • Jay P

    Good stuff, let’s hope TT is reading this and takes some of these videos to the locker room.

  • XMan12

    All these clips show me the importance of Perk being in there to protect the rim. WIlliams, Davis and Sheed can’t guard the backside of a pick and roll against a guy with point forward skills (ie. James, Bryant, Turkoglou when he was in Orlando). One interesting aside, I didn’t realize Manu was this great at creating contact, in the “Manu 2” clip Williams is in pretty good position but for whatever reason tries to poke the ball away from Ginobli (bad move), he still did manage to put more pressure on him ,even though he missed, by doing this but Ginobli counters by jerking his body quickly to his left and lunging forward, creating the illusion that Shelden was out of position, brilliant!!

  • Manu is a wizard. He had a couple of passes that were amazing, but I didn’t notice how amazing they were until I watched the tape in slow motion.

  • XMan12

    that’s what happens when a soccer guy plays basketball…..like Nash and Rondo

  • DRJ1

    I think it was Finley who said that they learn from every game, but more from their losses than their wins. This is a good example of why. Great work… love this stuff.

    In manu1 — looks to me like Fin missed his chance to stop Manu on that simple drive. Manu beat Baby (pretty handily) and Fin was the last line of defense, having already abandoned his man in the corner. Fin needs to learn from this clip.

    Manu2 — refs were terrible in this game (that no-call on Hill’s extremely hard foul on KG was the worst.) Manu could easily have been whistled for a charge because he lowered his shoulder and plowed right into Shelden, who was until then doing a pretty good job of staying in front of Manu.

    Manu5 — Shouldn’t Rondo have left Manu to KG once Manu got by him, and covered Tim instead? It’s a ridiculous matchup, sure, but Tim was far enough away from the rim where it should have been ok. I mean, that’s what you do in a pick and pop… you don’t leave the popper wide open…

    Manu6 — I don’t understand why PP bothered to run up to Tim if he was just gonna watch him shoot. Why doesn’t Paul put his arms up? Did they decide to give Timmy the open mid-range shot in this game??

    Manu3 — Manu beats everybody off the dribble. So where was KG, the last line of defense? I’d rather have one guy on Manu, and when he gets beat, have a last man standing at the rim to stop the layup. KG was pulled away when his man pops out… I suppose at that point it was pick-your-poison time, but I’d rather stop the layup and take my chances with the other guy being open deep.

    And about Manu’s crossover, the one dribble to his left and then drive right… yes, it was great stuff… but very, very basic basketball. Hell, Manu switches hands every couple of seconds out of habit… he’s ALWAYS crossing over. That he beat Ray is good for him… we can expect him to beat the first guy. Beating Sheed is meaningless… Sheed has NO business being out there trying to stay with Manu on the dribble. He just gets in the way. Bottom line lesson from this one is probably that KG should man that last line rather than chase a popper to the outside.

    Manu4 — I don’t think Rondo’s shading has anything to do with the success of that play. You can see that Rondo’s goal is exactly the same as all the other times… he wants Manu to go in one, known direction, and that’s exactly what Manu does. Only this time, he’s facing both KG and Sheed right in front of him, and has no options other than to pass. Of course, KG and Sheed were able to be there because the Spurs hadn’t set anyone deep yet… this play looks most like a bad SA set, one that never developed right in the first place.

    Great stuff, for sure. Thanks!

  • @DRJ1: yeah, one issue I didn’t touch on in the post is how aggressively the wing guy (Pierce in a couple of the clips, as you mentioned) should help off the shooter in the corner.

    That is such a tough decision for a defender to make, and one I’m sure they are coached to make a certain depending on the situation. You’re right that they often take the in-between route of moving a bit toward the roller/popper and waiving their arms, and that it’s unclear if this accomplishes anything.

  • will

    this is awesome breakdown, nice work Zach, LOVE these segments

  • Perry

    No surprise to learn the Spurs without Manu lost in NJ last night.

    Manu4 versus Manu5: Duncan stayed a second longer with the pick in Manu5. Still in Manu4, despite Duncan not planting properly Ginobili manages to make the right pass. Perhaps a defender with length (Quis) could have induced him into a turnover?

    Great work Zach.

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  • dont_drink_the_koolaid

    zach is awesome on the video breakdown….the next brian adams.

    regarding cheating off the wing to help….i have a feeling doc brought this up at halftime after manu got cooking in the 2nd. it seemed like they cheated way more in the 3rd, but the spurs countered with great ball movement, resulting in a whole lot of scrambling to recover by the Cs, and the end result was a lot of easy looks and offensive rebounds. this is what seemed to break the will of the Cs….”nothing we do is working and this is frustrating”

    ultimately, there is no perfect system. the spurs offense, led by manu’s craftiness, beat the Cs defense. i don’t think it was a result of bad strategy or bad effort….just not being good enough to get it done due to a lack of athleticism.

    high pick and roll is NBA Defense 101 after all, and nash&amare still pull it off every night :)

  • I love Green

    Zach you’re my hero.

  • Dan

    Really awesome stuff here. This kind of analysis is why this is always the first NBA blog I look at.

    A good point made earlier that I feel needs reiterating is that the C’s were playing without Kendrick Perkins. He wouldn’t have made much of a difference as far as the offensive woes, but you have to think one of the top defensive centers would have kept Manu from penetrating. Sheed was basically just there for the ride.

    If the essence of the Celtics is tough defense, then in many ways Perkins IS the heart of the team.

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  • DRJ1

    @Dan– I’d still have to give that “heart” title to KG. For the very point of your last sentence, but also because… well… he just is. You know what I mean.

    I’ve already said this was a great post, etc., like everybody else, but I’d like to elaborate a little bit further and say that this kind of analysis is the best thing about blogging altogether. You can’t find it anywhere else. Even amongst blogs, it’s rare. Outside of the blogosphere, it’s nonexistent.

    I/we understand this and appreciate it. It takes a lot of insight, dedication, work, and cojones to do this kind of thing.

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  • John

    Great blog Zach. Good to see these kinds of breakdowns, hopefully we can learn from it for next time.

  • Great breakdown, thanks. And you are correct once again when you describe Manu as a “wizard” – he truly is a basketball wizard at both ends of the court.

  • Only thing I disagree with is the Manu is one of the 10-15 best players. More accurately he’s one of the 5-10 best players in te NBA right now. And clearly, the best foreign born player in basketball.

  • Bassy

    Well what you want to do is force him to one side. On the first one he was forced away from the screen, and to his strong hand, of course you are going to get burned if you do that. In practice you plan to make him use the screen and then you see how you defend it, so you don’t want to force someone to the other side of the pick and roll especially if it’s ginobili and to his strong hand.

    The way you force him to use the screen is important also. You cant just sell out and totally open up to one side, if you do that he is going to burn you and the help coming from the screen. You have to shade him to one side, without selling out, and then be aggressive on him so he has to make a tough pass or decision.

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