The NBA is now a league of pick and rolls. An infusion of athletic big men who can shoot, a decrease in physical play on the perimeter and Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns have all contributed to a game that is a far cry from the post-and-iso heavy play of the stodgy late-90s and early 2000s.
The pick and roll creates a unique problem for NBA defenses, especially with mobile big men who can shoot now acting as the screener for intelligent and rangy guards who have a myriad of options coming off of a screen. Or, in some cases, a hybrid forward like LeBron James or Kevin Durant is setting the screen or coming off the pick, making the situation all the more terrifying.
Complicating matters is a relatively new occurrence, the side pick and roll. This new wrinkle starts from either the sideline or wing as a ball handler attempts to get to the center of the floor in a 4-on-3 situation.
By initiating the pick and roll action far away from the center of the floor, it opens up the whole floor to the offense and stretches the defense in uncomfortable ways. Unlike a middle pick and roll, both corners are open to a side pick and roll, with the weak-side corner (the corner where play begins), being particularly deadly to an inattentive defense.
In order to combat the side pick-and-roll, defenses had to adjust. This adjustment is called “ice” (or “down” or “blue”, but primarily “ice”).
Basically, “ice” calls for the defense to sell out to stop the ball handler from using the screen and getting to the middle of the floor, using the baseline as an additional defender. The on-ball defender gets between the screener and the ball-handler, sticking his back and rear into the screener’s base, leaving the man defending the screener to hang back a few steps and prepare to jump out to either close on a long two by the screening big man (the optimal situation for the defense) or to push the ball handler driving baseline deeper into the corner and sideline.
Or, as in the situation below, they force a turnover:
The Chicago defender sells out his body to jump in front of the screener, and Taj Gibson (22), steps back to help on the drive, and in the panic the Orlando ballhandler dribbles the ball off his foot and out of bounds.
Here, Kirk Hinrich (12) denies the pick not once but twice on the same possession before tapping away the pass from a trapped Victor Oladipo (who realizes the futility of the first pick and simply waves it off):
First Joakim Noah then Carlos Boozer hang back and help on the ballhandler as Hinrich sells out on the pick.
“Ice” is as integral to NBA defense in 2014 as the zone blitz is to football. How, then, is it implemented in both NBA Live 14 and NBA 2K14?
In NBA Live 14, players defend the pick and roll in ways that closely resemble real life. The fit of the “ice” coverage is a little more precise than real life and clearly signposted for users, but the general principle is correct.
Here, a Wall-Gortat side pick and roll is ice’d perfectly by the Bulls defenders, forcing Wall into an inefficient long 2:
Hinrich takes an extreme position on this play, forcing Wall to either go way back towards the backcourt to get around him, or to float to his left, where Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah awaits. The Wizards perimeter shooters are covered well, leaving Wall with few options.
Here, Wall uses a pick closer to the middle that the Bulls do not ice. He still gets trapped up in the Bulls help (though Noah is suspiciously stationary) and kicks it out to Bradley Beal, who does get ice’d on the side pick and roll, but manages to hit the jumper:
Again, these shots are what this defense is designed to elicit. Generally low percentage, with very little ball movement. In NBA Live, with its mostly-stationary players, icing the pick and roll is deadly.
Unfortunately, NBA 2K14 does not handle pick and roll defense nearly as well:
Hinrich makes no effort to deny the pick to Wall, who gets to the floor pretty easily. Noah comes out way too high on an attempt to slow Wall down, and Wall finds Nene for the layup plus the foul.
More than anything, the Bulls don’t look organized on defense. Watch Mike Dunleavy at the elbow, guarding Trevor Ariza. He dives down on Nene, who is already well-covered, then turns away from him before Noah can recover, opening the passing lane for Wall.
Here, watch the defenders bunch together, leaving Gortat wide open for the dunk:
Literally all 10 players are on one side of the court, which is both poor floor balancing by the Wizards and terrible defense by the Bulls. Taj Gibson jumps out at Wall despite Hinrich and Noah chasing him into traffic, and nobody goes with Gortat or Ariza, who clears out to the wing as the ball gets passed to Gortat.
Here is how the real-life Bulls handled a similar situation:
Noah stays with the ballhandler threatening the middle, using his footwork and long arms to bother the dribble and poke the ball away when Beal attempts the jumper. DJ Augustin, knowing that he’s not covering a shooter in John Wall, jumps into the paint to keep Beal wrangled before hopping back to his man.
The Bulls constrict the court on pick and rolls, limiting the ballhandler’s options and trying to entice a low-percentage play.
Of course, not every team in the NBA uses ice coverage on side pick and rolls. The Miami Heat are famous for using their big men to blitz the ballhandler, forcing turnovers at a record clip.
Here, Rashard Lewis and Dwyane Wade converge on Gerald Henderson while LeBron rotates over for the steal:
The Heat don’t constrict the court as much as apply instant pressure to the ballhandler, forcing a dangerous pressure-release maneuver.
Here, Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers jump out on Kemba Walker, forcing a deflection and a turnover:
The other Heat players keep near potential shooters, and James Jones flies cross-court to cover Al Jefferson, leaving Walker with an impossible pass as the only option.
Here’s NBA Live 14‘s handling of the Heat’s defensive system:
First Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem converge on Luke Ridnour, who is able to get away from it to get the pass over to Gerald Henderson. Then Henderson is forced wide by Bosh and Wade, forcing a kick back to Ridnour. The Heat have shut down all options on the play, forcing Ridnour to take a contested 3, which he fortunately hits.
Here, Walker is really pushed hard by Haslem and Chalmers, who fights through the pick, forcing the pass to Josh McRoberts for the jumper from the elbow, which he–predictably–misses:
This is excellent stuff from NBA Live and having these differences in coverage based on position of the pick, players involved, and different team’s defensive philosophies adds some flavor to the game beyond facing different players. When you play the Bulls in Live, you need to be ready to handle them icing your side pick and rolls by using good shooters as ball handlers or by trying to split the double in the middle and attacking the basket. Against the Heat, you want a good-shooting big man to set the screen and you want to string the help defender out to create space for a shot after the pass. In the above example, the smart thing for Walker to do is take a wider angle to the basket, flattening out his approach to draw Haslem away from McRoberts. You also don’t want a player like McRoberts setting the screen, of course.
NBA 2K14, unfortunately, just doesn’t do a good job of replicating the Heat’s defense, either:
First, there’s no hard trap by the big man, and Walker is easily able to get into the paint. Once he gets into the paint, all 5 Heat players converge on him, leaving Gerald Henderson wide open on one wing, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist open on the other. Walker makes a minor error by passing it to Gilchrist, who hits the shot anyway.
Again, look at how disorganized the Heat’s defense is on this play. Having all 5 defenders in the paint on a simple high pick and roll is a goldmine for offense, and even though MKG is a pretty bad shooter, not even he could miss this shot. Imagine this type of play against our ideal Thunder lineup from last week, with shooters everywhere. It’s deadly against this type of sloppy AI.
The Heat do a better job executing their scheme here, but they over-rotate and get lost away from the ball, leaving Gerald Henderson wide-open for a jumper, which he misses. Still, it’s a great shot that most offenses would willingly take.
It’s interesting that, for all NBA Live does poorly, it gets this key aspect of basketball defense so right. While the current state of the game does not reflect pre-release promises of “authentic NBA gameplay,” it (mostly) correctly models how real NBA defenses defend both side and top pick and rolls. There’s a variety to the defenses that get thrown at users that makes the game interesting for basketball nerds. Unfortunately, the play-calling and sluggish player movement, combined with the low quality of the game’s visuals, make discerning what is happening and, worse, reacting to what’s happening, more difficult than it needs to be. However, as demonstrated by the clips above, there is potential for NBA Live, based on the strength of its AI alone, while NBA 2K14 falters in this basic way often enough to make playing defense frustrating and impossible without the usage of certain, let’s say…overpowered defensive schemes. Online NBA 2K14 should not be 1-3-1 zone vs 1-3-1 zone in every game, but the unreliable AI necessitates this, as any man-to-man scheme gets killed by simple pick and roll action.
Overall, NBA 2K14 is clearly the better game when compared to its brethren, but there are huge problems with the game that take away from the experience. This is a critical one.
What do you think? Do you even bother with man-to-man anymore? Have you found any way through the Points of Emphasis to help NBA 2K14‘s defense? Share your tips in the comments below or in our forums.