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Film Room: The Toronto Raptors and The Spain Pick-and-Roll

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Get to know the dangerous pick-and-roll alteration the Raptors implement on a regular basis.

Toronto Raptors v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Four Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Spain pick-and-roll is now fully integrated into the NBA game after coming over from Europe in recent years. It’s a unique wrinkle to the most common play in basketball and presents interesting challenges to the defense. You may have also heard the terms “stack pick-and-roll” or a “back screen pick-and-roll” and those equally apply here.

The Toronto Raptors have been running this set for years and they’ll certainly unleash it against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. This pet play is something you’ll likely see multiple times a game from them.

First things first. What exactly is a Spain pick-and-roll? Here’s a classic example from Toronto.

Jonas Valanciunas begins by setting a traditional high ball screen for Fred Van Vleet at the top of the key. After he does so, Kyle Lowry sets a back screen for the rolling Valanciunas and proceeds to pops to the top. Van Vleet assesses the situation to determine whether he can: A). Get a good shot B). Drop it off to the roll man or C). Kick it out to the top of the key to Lowry. Of course, there are many more actions that come out of this, but those are the primary three.

Now that we know what it is, how do we identify it ahead of time? The easiest way is to watch for hand signals from the ball-handler or coaching staff. Toronto has been consistent all season in how they call for the set:

As you can see here, Lowry gets the call from the sideline and signals to his team what the play is. He uses his two fists stacked on top of one another to call it out to his teammates.

Unfortunately, NBA basketball is hardly that simple. Raptors’ head coach Nick Nurse does a terrific job disguising his true intentions and catching the defense by surprise. Typically, a guard will first set a down screen for the big or come from the short corner in order to set the back pick. However, the Raptors have begun to throw different wrinkles into the action including dribble handoffs that get them into the look they want.

When it comes to the action itself, Milwaukee’s drop pick-and-roll coverage presents their biggest challenge. In their base defense, the man guarding the ball screen (usually Brook Lopez), drops into the paint upon the screener’s contact with the ball-handler’s defender. He does this so he can protect the rim at all costs and force the opposing team to take shots outside the lane.

However, when that back screen gets set in the Spain pick-and-roll, it only frees up the ball-handler to do the exact thing Milwaukee’s defense is designed to prevent. Here’s an example from their regular season matchup:

In order to camouflage their objective, Toronto begins the play by swinging the ball from left to right before dropping it back off to Kawhi Leonard near the top of the key. Once Leonard catches the pass, that’s when the true action begins.

With organized chaos all over the court, Milwaukee’s defenders are engaged with their individual assignments. Leonard receives a ball screen from Serge Ibaka that signals the beginning of the Spain pick-and-roll. As you can see in the photograph above, Lopez is already preparing for this and has two feet solidly planted in the lane. Fortunately, he steps up toward the three-point line to defend Leonard, as Lowry lurks behind him.

As Leonard turns the corner and begins to head downhill toward the basket, Lowry strikes and sets a back screen at the elbow. Eric Bledsoe, who’s tasked with communicating what Lowry is doing to his teammates, is caught completely off guard. Bledsoe either doesn’t identify the action that’s happening in real time or is worried about the rolling Ibaka. Either way, he’s late to contest Leonard’s eight-foot pull-up jumper.

Toronto runs many actions out of this set depending on how the defense reacts. If the ball screener rolls to the hoop uncontested, it’s an easy dump off pass at the basket. If the weakside defender drops down to tag the roller, they’ll often kick it to that corner for an open three. If the backscreen defender lingers too long, his man is wide open for a trey at the top of the perimeter. They also run pick-and-rolls on pick-and-rolls.

It will be interesting to see how Milwaukee defends the Raptors in this series altogether. There may not be as big of a need to switch, as there was against Boston. However, Marc Gasol can also hurt them in the pick-and-pop.

When it comes to the Spain pick-and-roll, the Bucks have at least a couple of options. They could try switching everything and take away the initial action. Their communication would be critical, as it would involve three players at a time. Unfortunately, this might create mismatches after the set and allow Toronto to exploit them by pulling the ball back out.

The Bucks could also drop Lopez or their screen defender deep into the paint, eliminating the usefulness of the back screen. However, this would give the Raptors even more wide open looks from the mid-range and that’s a particularly dangerous shot for Leonard. Of course, they could also stick with their base defense and prepare their guys for what’s to come. Better recognition of the set could yield better results for Milwaukee.

Budenholzer will have gone through all of the options with his coaching staff and team and implemented a solid game plan. Now is the fun part. We get to sit back, relax (sort of), and watch how these coaches play the game within the game.