For casual fans not yet indoctrinated into the night-to-night loveliness of NBA League Pass, it might seem odd that the big titans down low are increasingly becoming some of the most creative and useful facilitators. Marc Gasol runs a lot of Memphis’ sets from the elbow – even more so now that Mike Conley is out. Last year, when Derrick Rose was out with another leg injury, Joakim Noah did the same for Chicago, despite the ugliest jumper in the Association.
With stretch power forwards also becoming a de facto part of the contemporary game – requiring the same tenets of all-around skill as the man in the five-spot – a connection between the two traditional bigs has gotten a lot easier and a lot more common. Teams increasingly rely on four shooters and a rim protector, as well as a pace-and-space attack, so big men are beginning to resemble the so-called “soft” European bigs who came over in the post-Dirk exodus to start the current millennia.
In today’s game, court awareness is a must for both the power forward position and the big man on the block. As such, two playoff teams, the Rockets and the Clippers, have developed a chemistry between their two bigs that’s turned a largely obscure big-to-big alley-oop into the rule rather than the exception.
We’re talking about the bond between Josh Smith and Dwight Howard and the one between Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
The first pairing already decimated the Mavericks in the first round:
Smoove’s ability to create creases in the Mavs defense when catching the ball beyond the perimeter wall, but in front of the backline, has led to a number of Dwight oops, something he’s preternaturally designed to flush. That baseline defense, including the rotating big, has to step out on Smoove, making Dwight an easy target for the lob. And it’s not like the telepathy between the Rockets bigs is a new development in the postseason. They connected on a pair of big-to-big oops against the visiting T-Wolves back in March, running a high screen and role that should be shown to high school teams across the country:
The Smoove-Dwight ESP makes sense when you remember they were AAU teammates with the Atlanta Celtics before the jump to the NBA. Even last night, they ran a gorgeous play with Dwight spinning past a helpless STAT for yet another alley-oop coupling.
Of the 19 field goals where Dwight scored off an assist in the 4-1 series win over the Mavs, Smoove assisted on 10 of them. They are a big-to-big behemoth. But are they the best in the NBA? Another pair, one who will have to overcome a 3-2 deficit to face off against the Rockets in the Conference Semifinals, might just be their equal.
Through the first give games against the San Antonio Spurs, Blake Griffin is averaging 7.2 assists per game. Over the stretch of an entire regular season, that per game figure would rank in the top 10. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since Blake averaged the most assists per game (5.2) of any power forward or center in the Association this season.
As such, the Blake-DJ pairing has been rolling all year. Unlike the Rockets, who had Dwight on the sideline for the first half of the season (he’s only now inching closer to full health), the Clippers only had to withstand a 15-game absence from Blake (cue CP3 MVP talk). Despite those 15 games, the big-to-big oops are scattered throughout our archives — even back into last season.
But when LA’s series against San Antonio started, their expertise navigating the usually perfect rotations of the Spurs shows just how deadly they can be when they hook up with one another.
This is due in no small measure to Chris Paul. While the Rockets have to subsist on James Harden isos and some pick-and-roll options to take a defensive’s focus off the bigs, the Clippers have the NBA’s pick-and-roll maestro.
Paul generally runs the high screen with Blake, and because CP3 is so adept at finding open nooks in the defense to get all the way to the cup, the big guarding Blake is almost always forced to drop down and help. Invariably, when this happens CP3 throws a pass to Blake — who is either cutting for a highlight reel jam, or popping for the 18-footer he’s worked so hard to polish. That’s where an opponent’s defense can fall apart. Because when Blake catches the ball on the pass from Paul the rotating big on Jordan has to make the choice whether to come out and guard him, or stay on DJ. Blake’s ability to knock down that mid-range jumper – when he’s given time and space – forces the rotating defender’s hand.
And that’s when DJ slides along the baseline and catches the quick hitters from Blake. It’s happened to the Spurs countless times over the last week:
But it doesn’t even need to be Blake setting the pick to cause the problems for San Antonio. Here, DJ sets the pick and rolls, drawing attention to open up Blake at the free-throw line (if Blake had been coming up from the paint, this is what’s called “shorting”). Once Blake catches the pass, the Spurs freeze and DJ gets an easy reverse dunk:
Sure, that’s some muddled defending by Diaw, who gets stuck in no-man’s land after CP3 turns the corner, but Blake is so good at making the split-second decision to take it himself, pop for the jumper, or send a borderline touch-pass to DJ at the rim, the rotations have to be razor-sharp if the Spurs are going to defend it. And sometimes they haven’t been (defense is hard).
Here’s another example where Blake’s the one setting the pick for CP3:
The really weird thing about the Smoove/Dwight – Blake/DJ comparison is how similar the two big tandems really are. DeAndre has been assisted on just as many field goals through the first five games against San Antonio as Dwight was against the Mavericks in his five games (19). But Blake has assisted on 12 of those 19 field goals for DJ, two more than those from Smith to Howard.
Yes, ESPN thinks the big-to-big connection between Smith and Howard is “unstoppable,” but Blake and Jordan are just as tricky to slow down when they’re playing off that high screen-and-roll between Blake and CP3. The two even connected on the alley-oop in crunch-time during last night’s epic.
If we’re being completely honest, this has to be a draw. Both sets of bigs redefine what you can do at the power forward and center positions. It’s gonna be a lot of fun watching them continuing to connect throughout the playoffs.