In this season, and generally in their respective renditions of the last few seasons, the Phoenix Suns and Brooklyn Nets have been two of the more clever teams in terms of sets and actions they run, to tug at the strings of defensive tendencies and responsibilities.
They’re also as equipped as any teams in the league to not just space the floor with shooters to stretch a defense but to also manipulate spacing and open areas of the floor to exploit as they see fit.
No better recent example exists than what we saw take place in the second quarter of last night’s matchup.
Let’s zoom in on it.
This was one of the most hilarious play-by-play exchanges between teams I’ve seen across the league this season.
For the Nets
They went with their version of the set, which is “clear/open 77 Exit.”
What is unique about their version is that they have Joe Harris, one of the league’s most prominent deadeyes from deep, “ghost screen” (fake screen) with the initial. He does so often to initiate actions, so much that it’s hard to tell whether it’s to set something up, to re-space, or to get a reaction out of the defense.
Here, it’s acting as the first of the “77” aka double drag (or double screen) part of the play.
As that happens - looking at the coverage applied to the recently prolific Cam Thomas - the Suns brought Deandre Ayton out from his base coverage of “drop,” and up to the level of the screen, for a flat hedge, to hold for Cam Johnson to navigate the screen.
However, if Ayton is closer to, or at the level of the screen, that triggers backline defensive activity and rotations to take over for the roller, who is Nic Claxton.
If Claxton isn’t accounted for, the lane is clear for an alley-oop, which is what we saw.
Exactly why was he so open in the roll?
Well, the Nets cleverly re-spaced the floor, on the fly. Not only did Harris “ghost screen” into occupying the high quad on the same side as the roll (removing the potential tag-ability of Mikal Bridges as it’s too quick and spaced out), but they also had Patty Mills run the baseline, moving another tag, which would’ve been Chris Paul (who was originally the lowman) who would tag the roller for Deandre Ayton until he was able to recover.
To exacerbate all of that, Dario Saric’s man, Ben Simmons, sets the “Exit Screen” for Patty Mills, occupying both Saric and Paul as they communicate how to defend this sub-action.
All of this happening in a well-timed manner results in a wide-open look on the oop for Claxton.
On the Suns Side
They’d go about it in a similar manner.
However, in contrast to the Suns putting two to the ball on Cam Thomas, the Nets were (customarily) switching, making the process and reads slightly different.
Instead of the first screener in the “77” dynamic ghosting into the high quad, he (Cam Johnson, also a deadeye shooter) would set a true screen, then relocate to the high quad, maintaining the spacing.
The play opened up as Paul got to the Ayton screen, where, instead of a flat switch, Claxton and Thomas went with a “late switch,” which enabled Ayton to subtly discard Thomas with a push-off for separation into the roll.
This is also accompanied by the eyes of Chris Paul, not tipping his hand at the oop option, and staring down the “Exit Screen” dynamic on the strong side, to hold the defense honest and at bay, before delivering the oop with a feather-soft touch, over the outstretched hands of Nic Claxton.
Using shooters as screeners, as both teams did here in the initial screener's role, is a weapon that is hard to defend regardless of the defensive scheme being applied, as, it requires better attention to detail and heightened levels of awareness.
This was a beautiful and high-IQ half-court offensive exchange of running the same play, in slightly altered manners, while also manipulating spacing, and tugging at the respective defensive coverages applied by each team, in a chessman’s “checkmate” style.