Learning the Spurs playbook: scoring with off-ball screens

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The gears are always turning in the Spurs motion offense, and the many variations of the off-ball screen are a huge reason for the team's success.

The Spurs offense is a thing of beauty. Crisp passes, continual ball and player movement, and individual prowess combine to make for a supremely entertaining viewing experience. But while we enjoy the ride, we might overlook all the preparation and meticulous execution that goes into the plays the Spurs run.

Like accomplished comedians or musicians, the Spurs' players do a great job of making everything seem spontaneous, unrehearsed. In reality, a lot of the team's buckets come from thoroughly drilled plays. In this new section, we will analyze some of them, starting with three of my favorites when it comes to freeing up players with off ball screens.

Motion strong off screens

The first play comes as part of a set that is often referred to as "motion strong." That means the point guard will pass to the trailer and set a screen on the strong side for the shooter in the corner.

This is a prime example of the motion strong set, where the trailer swings the ball to the wing on what was the weak side and sets a second screen for the shooter on the opposite corner. It sounds very complex but it really isn't. And I'm sure you'll instantly recognize it once you see it. Just focus on Manu.

Motion_strong_off_screens_shot_

There it is. The ball-handler (Mills) passes to the trailer (Diaw) and sets a screen for the wing on the strong side corner. The trailer then passes to the weak side wing (Belinelli) and sets a second screen for the player coming from the now weak side corner (Manu). Those staggered screens free up the shooter.

If the defense is too aggressive trying to deny the shot and goes over the second screen, the cutter can always curl to the bucket instead.

Motion_strong_off_screens_drive

Common counter: Off screens, then pick-and-roll

Motion_strong_p_r

When the staggered screens fail to free up a shooter, the most common counter is to segue into a simple pick-and-roll using a ball screen from the trailer, as we can see in the above example.

Motion weak off screen

A motion weak set starts when the point guard or ball-handler passes ahead to the wing on the strong side and makes his way to the opposite wing. It's one of the Spurs' favorite ways of starting plays.

In this variation, the ball-handler passes ahead and cuts to the opposite wing. Before he even receives the ball, the shooter on what will soon become the strong side corner cuts baseline to the rim, then makes a zipper cut to the top of the arc while the trailer screens for him. Keep your eyes on Belinelli on the upper corner.

Motion_weak_off_screen_2

Manu advanced the ball and passed ahead to the strong side wing (Danny Green). The wing that passes to the trailer will go to what will become the weak side corner while the wing occupying the now strong side corner (Belinelli) cuts baseline to the basket, then changes direction towards the top of the arc. He then receives a screen by the trailer (Baynes). If he loses his man on those screens, he will have an open shot.

Common counter: Off screen segue into dribble hand off

Motion_weak_segue_into_hand_off

Here you can see the exact same play but, since Belinelli is defended well, he passes to the big man at the elbow. From there a simple dribble hand off to the man on the weak side corner (Manu) can catch the defense off balance. The Spurs do this a lot when the initial action doesn't work.

As you can see in this play, the post (Diaw) will try to establish position on the block to receive the ball if the defense denies the initial pass to the shooter.

"Loop floppy" or "Zip 3"

These sets of plays are called "loop" or "zipper" and they start with a player on the corner making a zipper cut (perpendicular to the baseline, going away from the basket) towards the top of the arc. A set that offers a cutter the option to use one screen on one side of the court or two staggered ones in the other is referred to as "floppy."

What the Spurs do very often is run the point guard or ball-handler through three screens along the baseline, in order to free him up after he passes to the wing that made the zipper cut.

Loop

This play is a favorite because it offers so many options.

Leonard makes the zipper cut and receives the pass. The wing on the weak side corner (Green) cuts baseline and sets a screen under the rim for the original ball-handler (Parker). Splitter is already setting another screen at the elbow for Parker to curl off. With the defender trailing, Parker can take the shot or attack the rim. If the big man guarding Splitter steps outside, he can make the pocket pass.

This play is a nightmare for the defense. In that play you can see how Splitter, Leonard, Green and Parker were temporarily open at different moments.

Common counter: Double back and use the strong side screen or "Zip 3 peel"

Floppy_variation

Parker begins to cut, using a Diaw screen. Leonard starts to move in order to set the second screen under the basket. But Jarret Jack knows what's coming so he overplays the first screen in order to stay close to Parker. He is defending the play instead of the action. That's when Tony reads the defense and doubles back, using a flare screen by Diaw.

Green makes a great pass. From there Parker can take the shot or drive. In that example, he drives and as the defense collapses, finds Green for a wide open three.

Those are just three plays in the extensive Spurs' playbook. The idea is to keep exploring it and hopefully get a better understanding of how the Spurs still manage to catch teams off guard after all these years.

For a more comprehensive look at the Spurs' playbook don't forget to visit Spurs Motion Offense or this video (H/T to PSherman42, who helped with the research)

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