Remember Gordon Hayward’s devastating broken leg five minutes into his Celtics career, the injury that ended his season?
The Celtics called this play after a timeout, and I wonder if it was with the intention of getting their new star player going. It’s a set that should look familiar to Jazz fans: Hayward starts to cut up to the top around a screen as he typically does, but quickly changes direction towards the basket to catch the alley-oop. Unfortunately, the Cavs defense sandwich Hayward in the air as they try to intercept the pass and causing him to come down awkwardly.
It’s a play that relies on misdirection, but the Celtics didn’t fool the Cavs: it was too early in the game, and maybe the season, for the Cavs to have habitually expected Hayward to go around the screen. It was after a timeout, when teams typically are near their peak in defensive focus. And most importantly, the pass was too close to LeBron James, who is too good at reading what’s coming next thanks to his years of NBA experience.
While it didn’t work for the Celtics, to disastrous consequences, Hayward was repeatedly successful in this play with the Jazz. There were, admittedly, some close calls in Utah, but the Jazz’s alley-oop passes (typically thrown by Joe Ingles) usually came after a fake to where Hayward normally goes at the top of the arc. The Jazz were often able to get Hayward easy alley-oops through tricking their opponent into thinking one thing was coming, when in fact another thing was. And Utah does that as well as any team in the NBA.
They probably need to.
Unlike most of the elite teams in the league, the Jazz don’t have multiple go-to one-on-one options when it comes down to it: the Jazz have Donovan Mitchell and team execution to rely upon. But thanks to their keen sense of trickery, the Jazz can get themselves open shots anyway.
The Jazz’s best con men are Mitchell, Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles, who rely on head, eye and ball fakes to move the defense around on their own terms. The plays themselves aren’t always complicated, but the trickery is enough to get great looks.
Take this fantastic pass from Mitchell, one of his 11 assists from the Jazz’s Game 2 win against the Houston Rockets in the second round.
Derrick Favors comes up to set a screen, and the Rockets plan on switching. But Mitchell engages James Harden for just long enough that he’s a little bit late to get back to Favors, who has slipped the screen and is rolling to the hoop. That forces Trevor Ariza to help stop the roll, so he drops inside. What does Mitchell do? He puts the ball above his head and looks at Ingles, forcing Ariza to go back to his man. Mitchell then delivers a perfect no-look pass to Favors, who completes the dunk. Ariza looks like he’s running after ghosts.
Rubio is famously good at doing this, but he’s probably best in transition, especially when big men run the floor. But Rubio and Ingles have also mastered the art of using passing fakes to set up their own scoring opportunities at the rim, especially necessary because of their own lack of vertical explosion.
Ingles here uses the threat of the Rudy Gobert role by actually looking at Gobert, then making the pass fake, to move a gullible Phoenix defense out of the way for his own easy layup. He does this frequently, with both Gobert and Favors.
But of course, player fakes aren’t the only way to exploit misdirection. Coaches can do it too by installing multiple plays that look exactly the same… until they don’t.
Quin Snyder certainly fits this mold: one coach, Gibson Pyper, recently broke down Snyder’s playbook from watching the tape. He found 62 different plays and variations out of the “Horns” set (where two players operate near the corners of the free throw line) that the Jazz can run.
Take “Horns - Out - Miami." The base play has the Jazz center set a screen for the power forward, who receives the ball. Then the power forward hands it off to the shooting guard, who dribbles it across the top and can either drive himself or pass to the rolling big man.
Or the Jazz can run the exact same thing, but a “Spain” variation in which the point guard sneaks in to set a backscreen for that rolling big man. If you’re guarding Utah, and you’ve seen the passes and the movement of the first version a few times, you’re probably not going to be expecting that pick.
Stay with me here: the Jazz have at least four sub-variations on the “Miami” variation of the “Out” initial actions in the Horns section of the overall Jazz playbook. Whew. With all of those possibilities, it’s pretty easy to understand how the defense won’t know what’s coming next, even if the plays look pretty similar at the beginning.
This is also where the Jazz’s continuity is an asset. Because the playbook can be complicated, having players who know the ins and outs of it and can execute it on time isn’t easy, especially with the NBA shortening training camp.
But with 14 of 15 players on this year’s roster in the Jazz organization last season, everyone should largely be on the same page. Meanwhile, their opponents could be reading entirely the wrong book.