The Portland Trail Blazers are known for having one of the more unorthodox playbooks in the NBA. Their heavy usage of flare screens and circle actions are beginning to catch on elsewhere, but no team runs that kind of stuff as much as Portland does. As high as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum’s usage can be, that doesn’t mean they pound the ball through the floor all game, though Lillard is often the outlet when things break down for the Portland offense, leading him to have his touch and dribble stats skewed slightly higher than what they are in the normal flow of their offense. One avenue head coach Terry Stotts uses to get both players involved in the same action is through a play I call “Pitch Milwaukee”, though there are many different names for it.
Throwing the ball ahead and chasing it has become a common trend throughout the NBA. Point guards aren’t always bringing the ball all the way up and initiating the offense, they’re throwing it ahead to a wing or big man and chasing their pass, giving them the option to take a handoff at full speed to the basket, cut through to the weak side, or set a screen for a teammate on the strong side. The prevalence of the handoff as a way to short-circuit some of the stricter rules about illegal screens have made this sort of action even more popular in recent years.
In Pitch Milwaukee, the point guard brings the ball up along the right side of the floor and plays catch with the big man at the top of the key. From there, a guard in the corner sprints to get the ball from the point guard, initiating “Milwaukee” action: a handoff directly followed by a ball screen. At that point, the ball is in the middle of the floor and moving full speed toward the basket, with a big man rolling down the paint next to it, and the two weak-side spacers screening for one another. Here it is in its entirety:
This particular instance didn’t work as well as it will in the regular season, since Portland ran the play with their backup unit in the game, but it’s not hard to imagine this same action working very well when Lillard and McCollum are in the game, with Jusuf Nurkic rumbling down the lane and shooters spacing the floor on the weak side. Every aspect of this play occupies defenders and forces them to either fight through a myriad of screens or choose between helping in the lane and leaving shooters open on the perimeter. The smallest details will make the biggest difference for this set in the regular season – the importance of the flare screen Zach Collins sets for Jake Layman can’t be underestimated. If, as in the clip above, Layman’s man helps stop the ball from getting to the basket, Layman will be wide open for a corner three, one of the most efficient shots in the game. Nik Stauskas misses him on this play, but it’s safe to assume Lillard or McCollum would see and make that pass if Layman finds himself alone in the corner.
Another underrated aspect of this action is the speed with which the Trail Blazers can run it. From the first pass to Meyers Leonard at the top of the key to Stauskas being stopped at the elbow, just five seconds of the shot clock elapsed, which gives Portland the opportunity to pull the ball out and run something else if they don’t gain an advantage over the defense.
Look for Pitch Milwaukee when the Trail Blazers open their season against the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night and throughout the season.