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How the Bulls stymied the Spurs pick-and-roll attack

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The Bulls completely exploited how limited the Spurs offense is without LaMarcus Aldridge.

Minnesota Timberwolves v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

The Spurs clearly felt the absence of LaMarcus Aldridge in their Monday night loss to the Bulls. Without their star big man, the team’s offense lacked its typical rhythm and flow. In his place, Jakob Poeltl played almost 36 minutes and Chimezie Metu played about 11. While both bring valuable attributes to the offensive end of the floor, neither provides anything like the same amount of room to operate that LaMarcus does, especially given how well he’s been shooting the ball of late.

A rolling big man can be a devastating force when used correctly, but the Spurs struggled at times to counter the Bulls’ defensive strategy. Rather than play the pick and roll straight up, as the Spurs tend to do, Coach Jim Boylen asked his bigs to meet the ball handler at the level of the screen.

On the Spurs third possession, that resulted in a series of awkward actions that led to Bryn Forbes missing a deep and well contested three from the right wing.

It starts well, with Dejounte Murray dribbling right into a drag screen from Jakob just on the left side of the top of the key. Jakob rolls of out of the screen, but his defender, Luke Kornet, stays with DeJounte. That leaves Kris Dunn all alone on the left side of the floor between DeMar DeRozan and Jakob. A quick pass over the top to the rolling big would put Dunn in a very difficult spot, but Dejounte takes one dribble too many, then picks the ball up and tosses it over to Bryn without having stressed the defense at all.

With the shot clock down to 13, Dejounte clears out to the left corner so DeMar can try his hand at the pick and roll. DeMar takes the screen going left, and immediately elevates to feed the ball to Jakob on the short roll. It’s absolutely the right basketball play, but Jakob still has a lot of development left in this part of his game. When he catches the ball, Jakob has two very good options.

Zach LaVine is the only Bull on the right side of the floor and the Spurs have Trey Lyles in the corner and Bryn moving to the top of the key. The decision point here is the location and direction of movement of the defender. Lavine is pretty evenly split between Trey and Bryn, but he’s moving up the floor, meaning Jakob should fire this ball out to Trey.

Tossing it back to Bryn isn’t necessarily a bad play, as he could certainly shoot over Lavine or attack off the dribble against a poor close out, but throwing the ball into the empty space where Bryn used to be is definitely the wrong move.

Dejounte did a slightly better job of attacking that defense a few possessions later.

Seeing that Kornet is showing before the screen is even set, Jakob slips out of the pick and goes directly into his roll down the right side. He is wide open immediately, but by the time he gets his head around, Dejounte has already used the Jakob-sized hole in the defense to split the two defenders on his way to the lane.

Tomas Satoransky helps off Bryn in the corner to cut off penetration while Lavine zones up the weak side. Dunn stays in excellent position on Dejounte’s hip and deflects the attempted drop off to Jakob out of bounds, though it easily could have turned into a steal instead. The play should’ve had a better result, though.

Hitting Jakob early, as DeMar did, would’ve have left the big man with a one on one against Satoransky, which isn’t an especially valuable opportunity, so Dejounte’s drive was a good decision. Once in the paint, though, Dejounte should have been a little more patient. An extra dribble would have allowed Jakob to establish inside position and Dejounte could’ve have thrown it over the top to the 7-footer, or went to his floater with Jakob in excellent rebounding position.

The Spurs had difficulty with that coverage throughout the game, frequently turning one of the team’s bread-and-butter actions into a gaggle of bodies in the paint and an array of difficult mid-rangers.

Late in the 4th, though, the team broke the scheme on back to back plays to tie the game up at 101. First, the Spurs ran a simple pick and pop with a backside lift on a baseline out of bounds play.

DeMar takes the screen going to his right, Jakob rolls into the paint and Trey lifts from deep on the left wing up to the top of the key. With Kornet sharing defensive duties on DeMar with Dunn, that leaves Denzel Valentine to pick up the roll and Thaddeus Young responsible for the first pass to the weak side. Trey’s lift forces Young to close out hard, opening up a driving lane that allows Trey to get deep in the paint. He misses the floater over Kornet, but with Jakob in great position, the rebound turns into an easy tip in.

On the next possession, the Spurs got into the pick and roll so quickly that Kornet never even got to the level of the screen. With his defender not in position yet, Jakob holds this screen long enough to put Valentine well behind the play, and by the time Jakob gets into his roll, DeMar is already in the middle of his face up euro. He glides into a lefty floater before crashing into Young waiting in the restricted area to draw the and 1.

As with most schemes, there are multiple ways to beat this type of defense. Quickly hitting the big on the short roll is the most obvious, although Jakob and Chimezie still have a long way to go towards optimizing that option for the Spurs. Attacking the big, either by getting around him — a tactic DeMar uses often — or splitting the defenders, is very good as well, though it obviously relies solely on the ball handler to make an outstanding play. Learning to vary the pace of the pick and roll is critical to making that a successful option, but that takes a lot of time and reps to master.

Easier and perhaps better for the Spurs is using off ball movement and good passing to create opportunities on the weak side, as the team did on that baseline out of bounds play. Regardless of how they do it, the Spurs should probably work on attacking this coverage. It won’t matter as much with a 7-footer who’s hitting 43% from deep on the floor, but LaMarcus can’t play all 48, and the team obviously needs to be better prepared for when he sits.