Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard has played phenomenally over the last month, carrying a 26.8 ppg average through his sixth season in the NBA. Even casual observation reveals Lillard’s unique offensive talent, but there’s more than meets the eye in his tidal wave of points and devastating scoring attack. Damian Lillard prospers because he’s able to break conventions...with a little help from his teammates.
In general, it’s a pretty good possession for the defense if the ball handler in pick-and-roll takes a shot, since it’s usually heavily contested and comes after multiple dribbles. There are only a handful of players in the league for which this isn’t the case—Damian Lillard is near the top of that list. Lillard has scored 744 points on 703 pick-and-roll possessions so far this season (counting all of his shots, fouls, and turnovers), good for a mark better than 92 percent of all players in the league this season, per Synergy. Considering those 703 possessions amount to nearly half of Lillard’s total offense, it’s fair to say that both Portland and their opponents spend a lot of time thinking about what to do on these plays.
Across the league, it’s become an imperative for defenses to keep pick-and-roll ball handlers away from the middle of the floor. In side pick-and-rolls, the most common way of doing this is called “ice” or “down”, where the defensive guard will jump over the screen before the offensive guard does, ceding a driving path to the baseline but disallowing any middle penetration. The defensive big man drops a step or two to contain the baseline drive and contest any pull-up jumper and the defense can thwart that side pick-and-roll with just two players. This defense can be particularly effective against Lillard and the Trail Blazers because it takes away his biggest threat: his off-the-dribble three-pointer. Lillard scores 1.09 points per possession on off-the-dribble jumpers, ranking him in the 93rd percentile league-wide, a shot that’s difficult to efficiently create against the best down coverages in the league. In response, head coach Terry Stotts and his staff are relying more heavily on an action that has quickly spread across the league in the past few years: the wedge screen.
A guard usually sets a wedge screen the big man’s defender, in order to put that defender out of position on his pick-and-roll coverage. This works well against “down” coverage because the big has to be correctly placed for it to work; otherwise Lillard just has a free lane to the rim. Watch below how Pat Connaughton’s wedge screen on Taj Gibson mucks up the Timberwolves defense and when Jeff Teague jumps over the screen to execute his part of the coverage, there’s no help on the baseline to take away Lillard’s drive:
Gibson is late to get through the wedge screen and although Nemanja Bjelica does a good job recognizing that he’s now responsible for Lillard’s drive, it’s just a beat too late and Lillard is able to knock down the floater. Down coverage relies heavily on both the guard and big man being in the correct position, so throwing off that positioning can have devastating effects.
One of the Trail Blazers’ favorite sidelines-out-of-bounds (SLOB) plays involves Lillard inbounding the ball, then getting it right back and moving quickly into a side pick-and-roll, aided by a wedge screen from one of Portland’s shooters:
Lillard inbounds the ball to Jusuf Nurkic, who turns away from him as if the action is going to be run on the other side of the floor. After handing the ball to Connaughton, Nurkic wheels back around to set the screen for Lillard and CJ McCollum sets the wedge screen to help break up the down coverage the Thunder run on these plays. Nurkic quickly recognizes that Westbrook is going to jump over the screen and flips his hips around to wall Westbrook out of the play completely. Lillard takes one dribble to his right and pulls up for three, with a late-closing Steven Adams still a step or two away from getting a solid contest. Lillard misses the shot, but that’s not the point: despite everything about down coverage designed to eliminate this shot, throwing in a wedge screen beforehand opened it up for the Trail Blazers.
Here’s another example of that exact same SLOB play working to perfection for a Lillard pull-up three:
Another way to beat down coverage with a wedge screen is to prevent that coverage altogether. Watch how the wedge screen prevents Sacramento from getting the pick-and-roll down at all, allowing Lillard into the middle of the floor:
Once he’s able to turn the corner on the screen and has two-thirds of the court with which to work, the opposing team might as well just start walking down toward the other end of the floor. Lillard has all the tools to create havoc once he’s able to get middle: he can score at all three levels, find the roll man diving to the rim, or hit any one of the Trail Blazers’ shooters spreading the floor around him. All because of a little screen from one of those shooters before the actual pick-and-roll takes place.