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How the Bulls should attack a trapping pick and roll defense

Rewatching Pau Gasol's great game against the Bucks revealed a unique way in which the Bulls beat the Bucks' trapping defense. Were they able to keep it up against the Nets?

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

I still have nightmares of the Bulls' Eastern Conference Finals run under Tom Thibodeau. After Game 1, I was all amped up for an NBA Finals run, but as we all know, the Bulls would go on to lose four straight and go home for the summer.

A big reason that the Bulls struggled is that the Miami Heat were a defensive team built on speed, quickness, and blitzing the pick and roll. They often trapped Derrick Rose off the pick and roll and frankly, the Bulls did not handle it well.

Much of this was due to personnel, but execution could have been better as well. The video below is a good example of what the Heat often did to Rose in the playoffs (though unfortunately, I couldn't find a great one with the Bulls or Rose involved, so if anyone knows of one, post in the comments!):

Without a coordinated attack, this is a tough defense to beat, especially if you have very quick players. Here is a good article on what that blitzing/trapping Miami Heat defense looked like. In some of the Bulls' most recent games, teams have been trapping Derrick Rose more often, especially while Jimmy Butler was out. However, the Bulls utilized Pau Gasol effectively to beat this trap. Let's look at exactly how.

First, here is what breaking the hard hedge or trap looks like when Gasol is the roll man:

First, let me say that I actually think both Rose and Gasol do a nice job here. Gasol pops the screen, which is good in this case because Taj is already down low, so there was no room to roll. Rose does a nice job of getting the ball to Gasol without turning it over (easier said than done). Dunleavy had made a nice baseline cut. Gasol makes the easy pass to Dunleavy for a 10-foot jumper.

I just have a few issues with this play. First, with Taj down low, the two Milwaukee defenders guarding Taj and Moore can basically zone up and cover Taj, Moore, and Dunleavy's baseline cut. This allows Dunleavy's man to flash and help out on Pau, while still making a decent recovery to Dunleavy.

Furthermore, I think your best-case scenario here is either the shot that was taken or an open Gasol mid-range shot. Maybe Gasol drives and makes something happen, but it looks tough. Off a trap, I want to see an open corner three or a laup pretty much every time. Dunleavy could have stayed in the corner, but I don't think Rose could get the pass there and that would have allowed Khris Middleton to potentially overplay and help on Pau even more forcing a turnover or Rose to make a tough pass. In short, we got a decent shot, but not what I'd like to see of a trap:

Again, here is another example of why I don't like Gasol setting the screen with Taj down low. The Bulls start with a 1-5 pick and roll with the other three players spread out along the baseline. This allows Rose to be trapped and allows all three Bucks players to zone up and force Rose to either go back to Gasol in the high post, or swing it to the weakside corner.

However, while Rose makes the pass, it was easy enough to close out on the shooter do to the difficulty of the pass. A perfect pass over the top of all those defenders maybe gets you a corner 3. A pass back to Gasol almost undoubtedly leads to yet another mid-range shot.

Again, I don't mind open mid-range shots, but when Rose has been trapped, you need a layup or easy corner three. Let's look at what happens when Gasol doesn't set the screen and instead becomes the facilitator:

Several good things happen here. First, as Nikola Mirotic sets the screen, he immediately slips when he sees his man start to hedge.

Second, Gasol is in the high post, not down low, and the other two players are on the weakside. This puts the D in a tough spot. Since Gasol is the nearest defender to the ball, he has to help on the slip screen. If he doesn't, Rose drops the ball of to Mirotic, who gets a layup.

This means that Gasol pretty much has to be open in the high post. When the ball gets to Gasol, the defense is in trouble. If Gasol's man (Monroe?), covers Gasol, which he does, the man defending the corner has to quickly shift over from the weakside block to contest the layup. He's late on the rotation, and Gasol passes to Mirotic for the layup.

If he did make it over to help, he'd be leaving E'Twaun Moore (I think) WIDE open in the corner and give Gasol an easy pass. If Monroe just decides to leave Gasol open, I still think we get a layup. Gasol would be free for an easy drive and layup for himself, dump off to Mirotic, or kick to the man in the corner if everyone collapses. With Mirotic acting quickly to slip the screen and with Gasol in the high post instead of down low, it put Milwaukee's bigs in a bad spot:

Similar setup here. Monroe and whoever is guarding the corner do a piss poor job here. Again, with all the other defenders on the weakside, it puts Monroe in a really tough position. He has to drop all the way down to the block and leave Gasol wide open to stop the layup.

I think the rotation of Monroe down to the block, the man guarding the wing shifting over toward Gasol and the corner defender guarding both the wing and the corner is the only real way to stop this play. Even then, it will be tough for most big men to shift down the the low block quickly enough, and I think in the second play in particular, Rose would be able to find either the wing or the corner man for the open 3-pointer, since he's already coming back toward the middle.

The Bulls saw some trapping defense last night against Brooklyn as well. Brooklyn does not trap the pick and roll nearly as much as the Bucks. Typically, the Nets ICE (please, for your own good, yell that using your best Thibs impression, it'll feel good) the pick and roll or simply have the big man zone up:

Here, the pick and roll comes from almost the corner with the screen set back toward the middle. I think the Nets would have been better off ICEing it here, but instead Lopez simply zones up. Rose does a nice job of probing and makes a nice pass in to Taj, just as the defenders are trying to recover back to their own guys.

Unfortunately, we don't get a great shot out of it, but I thought our attack was nice. Still, this is how I would defend Rose off the pick and roll. He still has not proven to be a good enough shooter to make defenses pay for the big man zoning up.

Plus, you can sag way off most of the Bulls other players, so Rose will have a tough time scoring even if he can drive by the big. If the Bulls attack the trapping pick and roll like they did against the Bucks, I think it will lead to lots of easy buckets. However, last night the Bulls did not always react well the few times the Nets did decide to trap the pick and roll:

In fairness to the Bulls, the Nets had not trapped the pick and roll much, so they were clearly not ready for it. There was some good here.

First, Portis sees his man trapping and immediately slips the screen. That's about all that's good here. Felicio has basically no reaction to Butler being trapped. Watch Felicio initially stay on the low block, then move half heartedly up the lane. As soon as he saw Butler being trapped, Felicio needed to sprint to the high post area so that his man could not guard both Portis and him. I don't know if it would have led to a layup or even a good shot, but it sure wouldn't have led to a turnover and foul on the other end.

Alternatively, Portis could have slipped but then stayed in the high post area. This is poor awareness by the players and shows a lack of understanding of how to attack using this play. I'm all for having some freedom in offensive sets, but you need to know how to counter different defensive strategies. Was it Portis's job to stay in the high post? Or should the other big be sprinting up to the high post as soon as he sees the trap? Both could potentially work, but leaving Jimmy on an island with nobody to pass to doesn't look like it works very well:

Here, we see multiple Butler pick and rolls in one play. I honestly think the Bulls get lucky on the first pick and roll. The Nets are trying to trap Butler, and the Bulls look horribly unprepared for it. Portis isn't even facing the ball, so he'd have been no help. His man is already shifted over onto the strong side to stop Felicio from being open on the roll. Aaron Brooks might be open on a long skip pass, but that pass could easily get stolen.

Luckily, Jimmy makes a nice crossover and gets to the rim, but ultimately has to make a ridiculous kickout. I'm not sure why the Bulls didn't have a shooter in the corner, but alas, we end up having to reset to Jimmy. On the second screen, the Nets do a horrid job of trying to ICE and end up doubling. Felicio slips and the weakside defender is slow.

Again, I think we got lucky on the first screen in that Jimmy makes a nice move. Someone has to flash to that open high post area off of the double team.

In short, I think bringing another big, especially one with a respected mid-range game and excellent passing ability like Gasol, up to the high post instead of leaving a big on the block allows a unique way to counter the hard hedge or trap.

Would this strategy have worked against Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals back in the day with perhaps Boozer or Noah (both solid passers) playing the role of Gasol? We'll never know, but at least for one game against the Bucks, it looked like having a secondary passing option for Rose (either the roll man or a big in the high post) helped the Bulls better attack an athletic team that trapped the pick and roll.

The issue the Bulls seemed to have against the pick and roll trap yesterday was not being prepared for a team switching into a trap late in the game. Hopefully, when Gasol comes back, we can see more of Taj or Niko setting the screen, and Gasol being the high post playmaker off the pick and roll trap.