Basketball’s truly elite playmakers don’t just possess a rare blend of handle and court sense. Not even the underrated capacity of understanding pace and angles is what separates the greats from the best. The attribute of the game’s top floor generals most overlooked but also most influential is simple on the surface: the ability to see and interpret actions multiple steps before they develop.
Actually doing so is anything but simple, though, and recognizing those many instances from the outside can be equally difficult. Think of LeBron James looking off defenders to create open space for a teammate or Steph Curry taking an extra dribble to free Klay Thompson for an open look on the weak-side. Those are somewhat basic basketball plays that happen with such frequency they’re often hard to recognize.
The most effective table-setters are always probing and prodding in hopes of using their general offensive threat and unique set of skills to find and exploit a weakness in the defense. And the player who might do so more than any other? Chris Paul, of course.
Take this seemingly innocuous decision from overtime of last night’s epic between Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs. What looks like the Point God passing up a golden opportunity to break down Tim Duncan following a switch is actually an ingenious manipulation of the Spurs’ defense.
Paul forces switching by “snaking” a ball-screen from DeAndre Jordan. After initially looking for his big man down low, the 29 year-old makes a seemingly snap choice to swing the ball to Blake Griffin on the weak-side.
Why wouldn’t Paul take his patented pull-up jumper over the 38 year-old Duncan? Or even force a pass into Jordan while he’s being checked by a smaller player? Because the eight-time All-Star knows best how to best take advantage of a scrambled Spurs defense.
Following the pass from Paul, Griffin immediately initiates a side pick-and-roll with the ever-dangerous J.J. Redick. The threat of Redick’s jumper forces Boris Diaw to hedge aggressively, and Los Angeles’ resident marksman makes a typically smart read by quickly feeding Griffin with a bounce pass.
Look where San Antonio is on the floor as Griffin is about to catch:
The help defender is the one guarding Jordan here, and he needs to be rotated extra early when the roller is an explosive leaper like Griffin. He isn’t, obviously, instead stuck to Jordan’s hip as the reborn poster-maker prepares for another.