It's crunch time.
After a heroic win over France (and an anti-climatic malaise against the Czech Republic), the Boomers face off against Spain on Friday night – one win away from a potential gold medal. For a program that has never stepped onto the podium of any international tournament, this game means everything to Australia.
The Boomers, led by Patty Mills, have now proven that they have the firepower to beat anyone – they will need their core to operate once more as an intuitive machine. Spain have shooting and length at every position, running a hellacious offence predicated around a central unique threat. This match could very well be a shootout for the ages – these two squads feel like opposing sides of the same coin. It could also come down to simply who can get a stop, and one key play that infamously tethers these two teams together.
Evolution of the Spanish pick and roll
Spain’s offence is humming on another level, with back to back offensive eviscerations of Serbia and Poland. Considering La Roja’s recent success, the Boomers will have to hone in on guarding the team in red’s pet set: the Spain pick and roll.
Now, a standard pick and roll involves two offensive players: a ball-handler and a screener. Comparatively, the Spain pick and roll instead involves three offensive players – requiring a third person to set a surprise back pick on the initial screener’s defender before popping out to the three point line.
The history and naming of the play dates back to 2002, where it was first seen in Spanish league play. Gaining international attention throughout the 2016 Rio Olympics, Sergio Scariolo’s Spanish side caused wide-spread defensive havoc by unleashing their twist on the traditional pick and roll play again and again. In the bronze medal match against Australia at those very Olympics, Spain even ran the play to end the game, contentiously drawing a foul.
Defending the Spain pick and roll
Subsequently adopted and co-opted by coaches all over the world, the ‘Spain pick and roll’ became used with such frequency in the NBA that it was simply renamed as ‘stack’. Cut to 2019, and running ‘stack’ is no longer all that revelatory (video). There are now two developing schools of thought in defending the stack – either by utilising the ‘guard switch’ or the ‘deep drop’.
The guard switch attempts to blow the stack up by toggling defenders. In the second clip below, Stefan Jović and Bogdan Bogdanović switch after Felipe Reyes (the inbounder) sets a back pick on Marc Gasol’s man.
The deep drop, conversely, asks the initial screener’s defender (usually the big) to radically pull back towards the basket as to limit the effectiveness of the secondary back pick. Watch how Willy Hernangómez’ man (no. 34) suddenly retreats into the paint after hearing the stack call.
Teams now know that Spain are going to run stack. Spain is aware that other teams know. As such, Spain consistently attempts to catch opposing teams off-guard by cleverly folding elements of misdirection into their playbook.
On most inbound plays, for example, teams try to take away easy points around the basket and/or catch and shoot opportunities. Spain, nifty as ever, often run a ‘gut cut’ away from the basket in these scenarios – where their inbounder sprints through a screen in the centre of the court – before instantly inverting back into a stack pick and roll. Confused defences neither know whether to switch or drop against the action, instead bleeding wide open looks (video).
Due to a litany of outside shooters – and combined with Marc Gasol’s ability to hit the three and make plays from above the arc – opposing teams are usually hesitant in running the deep drop against Spain. The conventional wisdom – if your forwards aren’t quick on their feet – is to run the guard switch. Serbia and Poland likewise chose to consistently go down this route, only to watch as Spain took deliberate advantage of these very switches. Over here, Spain manipulates the heightened threat of their big men (video) – due to a switch and a mismatch – into easy outside looks.
The world might have caught up on how to defend stack, but Spain have responded by doubling down on its potency by attacking and exploiting switching defences in an atypical, cerebral fashion. Looking to force unnecessary defensive rotations, Spain often station two big men around the foul-line extended in an attempt to manipulate the perception (video) that they might run the stack pick and roll on either side of the court.
Teams then become so worried about a potential secondary screen that they over help or switch unnecessarily. Below, Rubio, aware that Poland’s centre has toggled onto Rudy Fernandez in semi-transition, runs a decoy middle pick and roll action with Gasol. Dragging Poland’s lumbering big (Damian Kulig, #77 at the bottom of your screen) into a foreign help position, Rubio forces the justly unaccustomed centre to both pinch in on the drive and close out haplessly to a shooter. Consequently, for all the hard-work Poland does in flailing to cover Spain’s pick and roll up top, La Roja rain uncontested from deep.
How will Australia prepare against breakdowns?
Throughout the World Cup, Australia have run a conservative ‘drop’ strategy against opposing pick and rolls. Electing often not to switch, the strategy has been routinely criticised for exposing the mid-range area. It has, on the other hand, decidedly worked in a myriad of other ways. Attempting to limit and constrict opposing three pointers, Australia is currently allowing the fewest made threes of any team in the World Cup (5.8, per Basketball Reference). Against France, Australia held Les Blues to nine fewer points than the French had previously averaged from deep. In a thriller decided by two points, this long-distance trend proved to be a decisive stat.
Likewise, in asking their guards to lock and trail over every pick, the Boomers are choosing to keep pick and roll situations as a two-man game. Refusing to offer weak-side rotational help, the Australians rarely commit defensive breakdowns that lead to wide open threes.
Against Spain, a team that is averaging almost 29 threes per contest, the strategy makes some sense. However, what do these above plays look like if there is a third offensive player added to the set, if Aron Baynes is being screened down low?
While Australia have faced some stack pick and rolls throughout the tournament (Lithuania ran a few that the Boomers guard switched), the Boomers are yet to face an offence that runs as many variations on the set, or veils its own sophistication, in the way that Spain does.
Will Australia guard switch or drop deep?
Australia came into the tournament with a stubborn coverage plan – recent history says they will show some variation of drop. However, Spain have mobile shooting threats across their front line and into their bench. If Spain run a spacing big (either Gasol, Victor Claver or even Jaun Hernangómez ) as the secondary back-picker, they will have a decided height advantage to use to shoot over a scrambling defence – regardless of coverage.
Outside of the Euro step, the Spain pick and roll is probably the most quintessential in-game representation of how the continent of Europe has shaped world basketball. It seems only apt then – in the Boomers' quest to win the World Cup – that they overcome this particular international hurdle. Reading and reacting to what Spain is concocting – especially when there is complex misdirection – will require extremely thorough planning. Spain will prey on miscommunication. Australia has a clear chance to win here, but their defence must move as one.
It sounds cliche and ephemeral, but communication, trust and impeccable timing will define the Boomers' pathway to success.
(Disclaimer: this article features footage previously used at Cleaning the Glass.)