With the combination of his all-seeing vision and knockdown shooting, few players in the NBA manipulate ball screens as frequently as Tyrese Haliburton. In fact, 47.7 percent of his usage comes from the pick-and-roll — a mark topped only by Ja Morant (53.7%), Trae Young (48.7%), and Cade Cunningham (47.9%) among starting-caliber guards. Moreover, although Indiana’s star guard has found some hacks for attacking switches this season, he doesn’t often waste his time spinning his tires against length in isolation; and when he gets a screen, he typically uses it, dribbling off the pick on 85 percent of the middle pick-and-rolls that he finishes with a shot attempt, free throws, or a turnover.
And yet, his approach on Wednesday night, when he scored 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting in a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, was contrary to what those numbers indicate. Meanwhile, the same could also be said for the defense, with both sides actively removing his screen help, albeit with different intents and purposes.
To understand why, along with the potential future implications, consider the perspective of Haliburton, as well as the motivation for the defense.
Haliburton’s game plan
Beginning with the very first possession of the game, Haliburton was notably aggressive in searching out the rejection during on-ball screens.
Granted, the end result is a clanked three from Jalen Smith, who has missed 18 of his last 19 attempts, but the offensive advantage as a coverage killer is clear. By going away from the screen, Haliburton is also going away from Rudy Gobert, who is prepared to absorb the ball.
A few minutes later, he returned to the same tactic, hunting the rejection with a left-to-right crossover as opposed to accepting the consecutive ball-screens and dribbling downhill toward Gobert. Of course, the downside to evading two centers and attacking into the open gap is that there was never a screen to snag his primary defender, Jaden McDaniels.
In the end, even if not belonging to Gobert, limbs were nevertheless waiting to ensnare the ball around the rim. Tellingly, given the context of how the Pacers were attacking out of ball screens, McDaniels finished the game with a team-high four blocks, three of which came against Haliburton, compared to zero for Minnesota’s premier defensive anchor. As for Haliburton, he shot 2-of-6 in the restricted area and never attempted a free throw — nor did anyone else in the starting lineup.
Even so, when considering kamikaze drives as the alternative, particularly when piloted into the path of rehearsed rotations as opposed to random rotations where the defense has to scramble to keep up with the ball, there was still definite benefit for his teammates in how often he was searching for the rejection as his first option. After all, because Haliburton goes away from the screen here, Gobert has to recover with the ball moving away from where he was positioned to drop, resulting in a wide open shot for Myles Turner.
Conversely, because Karl-Anthony Towns is getting set for the aggressive coverage on the ball, Minnesota’s defense is at a 4-on-3 disadvantage when Haliburton turns the corner. To be fair, there’s no telling why Jalen chose to put the ball on the floor, here, rather than making the extra pass to Bennedict Mathurin — but, again, the result is another opportunity for Turner, who played an overall splendid game, tying his career-high for made threes (7).
But, that alone was somewhat notable. Whether staying in drop (and occasionally late-switching) against the pick-and-pop or straying in scramble situations without rotating over from the weak-side, Minnesota was mostly willing to concede shots at the five position in order to stay home and wall off the paint. Remember, even with Jalen Smith shooting 1-of-19 from three over the last five games, it wasn’t until the 4:28 mark of the third quarter, when Turner had amassed 25 points, including five triples, that Chris Finch finally countered by cross-matching the assignments of Kyle Anderson and Towns before the Pacers made substitutions. Then, despite the fact that Turner was the lone big on the floor for Indiana, Minnesota had no qualms about closing out the game with both Towns and Gobert.
Needless to say, Turner kept his side of the bargain, as did Mathurin in squeezing through tight spaces and drawing contact, but the same couldn’t be said for the Pacers as a whole — at least not with regard to finding other methods for loosening the coverage.
Minnesota’s game plan
In part, that’s because the way in which Haliburton was manipulating the pick-and-roll wasn’t only being influenced by dodging the twin towers. On the possessions when he didn’t purpose mastering the art of rejection, something unusual kept happening — or, at least happened just enough to assume that it wasn’t solely in error or by accident.
Just look at Jaden McDaniels. Rather than trailing Haliburton over the screen, notice how he slides under and surges out. In turn, Towns doesn’t have to show and can avoid the back-screen, with D’Angelo Russell staying home. So much for that Spain pick-and-roll action!
Now, look at how he makes this double drag disappear, darting under both screens and triggering the next action for Buddy Hield.
Likewise, a re-screen was required when he was defending against two-man game.
And he could also be seen prioritizing the paint against spread pick-and-roll.
In case it bears pointing out, that’s typically how teams defend T.J. McConnell — who’s made a total of seven pull-up threes over his entire tenure with the Pacers. Haliburton is shooting 41 percent on 4.5 attempts per game. This is strange! Then again, McDaniels is 6’9 with the agility and reach to protect against the drive without necessarily giving up a completely clean jumper. That’s a valuable combination in an NBA geared increasingly around range and sledding downhill, and he certainly deserves his flowers.
But, McDaniels wasn’t the only player operating in this manner. There were also sightings of Anthony Edwards and Austin Rivers doing the same, and in every instance (including those involving McDaniels), Haliburton never stopped automatically behind the screen to shoot.
Instead, he advanced the ball to his teammates. Then, by the fourth quarter, between searching for the rejection to put the defense in unfamiliar scramble situations and being intermittently greeted on the other side of screens by the on-ball defender, his screen help effectively became the help of no screen — as he logged four possessions in isolation, when normally he averages 1.1 per game. Put simply, although the length of McDaniels bothered him at the rim when he attacked away from screens and acted as a deterrent when he had opportunities to stop-and-pop, Haliburton finished the game sparring out on the perimeter.
All of which is to say that, some of this is certainly unique to the Timberwolves and can also be chalked up to missed shots. After all, Haliburton had some easy, spot-up looks that just didn’t go down. Plus, not every team has the required anti-gravity of Gobert or combination of skills and physical attributes as McDaniels to get away with disrupting the flow of the offense while ducking under in spots. Still, for a player whose game is inextricably tied to that of being a pick-and-roll creator with feel and range, there is something to be said and learned from how, after being dared to be selfish with a screen, Haliburton ended up having to rely on, doing what he so rarely does, in creating for himself without one.