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Cross screen: the play the Spurs used to bury the Suns

Taking a look at the cross screen action that helped Victor Wembanyama dominate the end of the game.

San Antonio Spurs v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Through five games, Gregg Popovich has not run a lot of designed sets. Instead, the San Antonio Spurs have had a free flowing offense that emphasizes playmaking from the post position, pick and rolls, as well as getting out in transition. The results have been pretty good, as the Spurs have the 15th best offensive rating in the NBA (109.7,) scoring 115 points per game (12th in the league.)

San Antonio has started to work in more designed plays for their key guys in the last two games. Specifically for Victor Wembanyama, who exploded for 38 points and 10 rebounds against the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night. In that game, it appeared the Spurs might give up a 20+ point lead late in the fourth, as the Suns began to surge. That’s when Popovich called upon one of the Spurs most effective plays this season – cross screen high-low.

The play has an elementary set-up (in fact, I’m pretty sure I ran this play in junior high ball.) It’s a simple low cross screen between the four and five man. The player receiving the screen can flash to the low post, and the screener fills the high post, or the man receiving the screen can take it to the high post for a jump shot.

On Thursday, the Spurs ran the cross screen into high low six possessions in a row, up three points with a little over 3 minutes to go. They scored on five of those six offensive trips. This motion sealed the game, and buried the Suns.

Let’s dig in possession by possession and see what makes the play so deadly with San Antonio’s personnel.

San Antonio has two highly skilled big men in Wembanyama and Zach Collins. Both can score in the low, and high post, they can pass, and are able to find the soft spot in the defense. On the first possession we see why this combo is so good in this action.

Wemby sets the cross screen for Collins who gets open on the low block. With Keita-Bates Diop guarding him, Collins has a clear advantage. Collins has an opening on the baseline and draws Drew Eubanks on the double. Wemby does a great job of recognizing this, and cuts to the open spot for a left handed dunk. Collins passing ability and Wembanyama’s length makes this play possible.

We saw the ball go to the low man, now let’s see what happens when it goes into the high post.

This is where Wembanyama’s superstar-level gravity opens up the offense. Collins screens Kevin Durant, who is so focused on stopping Wembanyama from touching the ball, that he doesn’t communicate the switch with Eubanks. Collins reads this play perfectly, getting to the wide-open high post. Now there are two players guarding Wemby, while Collins has the ball in an area of strength.

Here is where personnel on the wing matters. We see Eric Gordon dig in, because he can afford to give Keldon Johnson a step. If that’s Devin Vassell out there, Collins would have an easy kick out to a high-level three-point shooter. Collins sticks with the play and hits a nice touch shot in the paint.

This isn’t an example of this play being ran incredibly well, but it works because Wembanyama is an alien.

Collins sets the screen on KBD who switches, leaving Eubanks on Wembanyama. Ideally this would be more of a mid-post touch, but Wemby spaces it way out to the three-point line. He’s got a mismatch here with a slower big guarding him on the perimeter. With any other player, this is probably a dead play that leads to a hand off or pick and roll with a wing.

Because it’s Wembanyama, we get an iso possession that ends with a spin, into a rocker step, then a one-dribble pull-up three. That’s superstar stuff right there.

This is a high-level read by Wembanyama. This is the fourth possession in a row the Spurs have run this play. Durant goes under the screen because he’s expecting Wemby to try and get to the opposite block. Wembanyama sees him cheat, flashes to the high post where he is nearly unguardable at the elbow. Eubanks has no chance to get to a contest in time, and it’s an easy two-points for the rookie.

Here the Suns do a good job defending this (probably because they had four straight possessions to prepare.) Durant and Eubanks successfully switch the screen, and Eubanks pushes Wemby off of the spot. However, this still puts Collins in a position where he runs a bulk of his offense – from the high post.

We’ve seen this play a million times from San Antonio. Just a quick pitch and follow to a guard into the screen and roll. Tre Jones gets a good look on the wing, but misses the dribble pull-up. Even if the Spurs don’t score on the cross screen, it still gets them into an offensive motion that they are comfortable playing out of, with either Collins in the high post playmaking, or Wembanyama isolating from the low block and perimeter.

Here it is one last time. The Suns are ready for the cross screen and fight through a pretty weak pick. Still, this gets Collins into the high post where the Spurs are so good at cutting off the ball. Grayson Allen is occupied watching the ball, or a relocating Wembanyama. Jones sees the back of Allen’s jersey and cuts to the basket for an easy layup from Collins. Money in the bank.

That’s six possessions, and 11 points. You take that any day of the week.

The combination Collins and Wembanyama has so much versatility that makes the cross screen a lethal set for the Spurs. They are both threats to score in the high and low post, good passers and capable scorers without the ball in their hands. As San Antonio looks to run more stuff to get Wembanyama the ball, watch for how effective this cross screen action is in getting them easy attempts around the basket.