There are very few bonafide power forwards in the NBA who can do everything Paul Millsap can do. From protecting the rim inside to switching out on the perimeter, from knocking down corner threes to backing his man into the goal, Millsap has it all. However, one thing that we haven’t seen from him that much this year is his ability to handle the ball in the pick-and-roll. Millsap has been great on post-ups and fares well in isolation possessions, but being a primary ball-handler hasn’t always been in his repertoire.
The Atlanta Hawks have been reticent to give Millsap the ball in pick-and-roll situations, despite his penchant for making good decisions in the multitude of other situations in which he finds himself in his jack-of-all-trades role for Atlanta. When he has run a pick-and-roll with Dwight Howard, he’s shown an ability to read the defense and get himself a shot or find Howard on the roll.
On the first play of the game against the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday night, the Hawks ran a standard motion set aimed at getting Millsap and Howard a pick-and-roll look:
Dennis Schröder triggers everything by passing to Kent Bazemore at the top of the three-point line. Schröder then runs the baseline, looking as if he is going to get a double screen from Thabo Sefolosha and Howard. Like almost everything in the Hawks offense, Schröder was probably one of the many options, as his defender would still be catching up to him as he received the ball, making the ensuing pick-and-roll with Howard that much easier.
Instead, Howard cuts off his screen early as Bazemore enters the ball to Millsap. Howard sets the screen for Millsap at the elbow, forcing an impossible situation for the defense. Because it’s a “snug” pick-and-roll, which means it’s taking place inside the three-point line, the defense doesn’t have the time or space to send over a third defender. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brook Lopez are on their own to sink or swim against Millsap and Howard, and more often than not, defenders have been sinking against the Millsap-Howard combination. Howard sets the hard screen on Hollis-Jefferson and rolls to the rim. Lopez has to step up to contest Millsap for fear of him pulling up for a free-throw-line jumper, but in doing so, leaves Howard alone to dunk home the alley-oop from Millsap.
The vast majority of Millsap’s defenders won’t be able to fight through the Howard screen, so switching that pick-and-roll is the defense’s only option. Howard knows this, so it’s imperative for him to roll quickly to the basket, leaving both defenders behind him and offering up an easy passing lane for Millsap to lob the ball over the defense for the easy dunk. Every so often, Howard will slip the screen altogether:
Howard steps up to screen Lavoy Allen, but instead of making contact, he slips to the basket. Because of Millsap’s prowess pulling up from mid-range, Myles Turner has to step up to him, leaving the entire restricted area open for Howard to catch and finish. Aaron Brooks tries to rotate over, but these snug pick-and-rolls make that almost impossible. Howard isn’t rolling from the top of the three-point line, where Brooks would be able to bump him and get back out to his man in the corner; he’s already in the paint and just has to turn around, jump, and finish the play. Brooks has no chance to stop Howard there and ends up fouling him for the and-one opportunity.
We haven’t seen as much of the Millsap-Howard pick-and-roll combination has some had anticipated coming into the season, but they’ve been effective in their very limited opportunities. Perhaps the coaching staff is saving this wrinkle in their offense for the playoffs, assuming Millsap is still in an Atlanta uniform at that point. However, it seems the Hawks could use the boost provided by this action, given how they’ve struggled offensively in the first half of the season.