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How the Sacramento Kings defended Tyrese Haliburton

And why it matters.

Sacramento Kings v Indiana Pacers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

When players are traded midseason, the first game against their former team is rarely as hollow as the “just another game” cliché would indicate — at least not from the perspective of nuance. After all, familiarity works both ways. With a tight turnaround and few schematic changes, the traded player is likely to recognize most of what is being called by the opposition, just as the opposition, in what is arguably of greater impact, will also know the intricacies of that player’s game, including how to game-plan for their strengths.

For example, just look at the exaggerated way in which Davion Mitchell, being he of on-ball defense highlights, positioned his body against Tyrese Haliburton, purposefully forcing the player he once played with from using his pet play, the double drag, on his right.

Turns out, this strategy had merit. By comparison to Malcolm Brogdon, Haliburton is comfortable moving to his left and rising up as a shooter, but he prefers going to his right when dribbling downhill off picks and for floaters. That’s why, with Mitchell cancelling picks and side-contesting like a barnacle clinging to a ship, this happened.

Worse still, for a player who has a tendency to defer from attacking toward length in isolation, Sacramento was also oftentimes switching after shading him left.

For that reason, while late-season games between lottery teams ranking in the bottom third of the league in defensive rating shouldn’t be viewed as measuring sticks, there’s still value in breaking down and evaluating how Haliburton and the team responded to personalized coverage that wasn’t “just like any other game” he’s played in since being traded.

Change angles

Against a weak, in which the on-ball defender stays attached, influencing the ball left and away from screening contact, a common tactic for regaining advantage is to tinker with the angle on the screen. By changing the direction of the pick from a regular ball screen to a step-up (i.e. a flat screen with the screener’s back to the baseline), the counterpunch restores the ball-handler’s options, oftentimes allowing them to snake back to their right.

Of course, there are levels to this with regard to fluidity of execution. Here, Haliburton has to stall a few beats, waiting for Isaiah Jackson to defrost from being iced before ultimately getting funneled to and chased out of mid-range by the subsequent switch.

From there, he once again demurs from dancing with the big, but he still manages to enthrall the defense with his eyes, teasing as though he is about to feed the interior mismatch before firing the ball to the corner for Terry Taylor, who has shot 72 percent (!!!) from the field since the trade deadline, to attack the off-balance closeout.

In that way, there’s an undeniable inclusiveness to the way Haliburton plays, even if there’s also a case for striking more of a balance as a scorer to avoid marginalizing himself from the offense, especially when a rebounding advantage exists over a guard under the basket.

Pop-and-slash

With Mitchell staying glued to the hip and then veering into the rolling big as the screener’s defender switches out and corrals penetration, another method for combating this type of coverage, with downhill pocket passes being difficult to locate, is to pop the offensive big.

Watch Terry Taylor and notice how he preemptively sets a flat screen, so as to loosen Mitchell’s connection with the ball, before releasing to the three-point line and calling bank.

Early on, Sacramento’s guards weren’t peeling back to cover the pop, but they were occasionally altering the rhythm of shots with off-ball stunts.

To be fair, Goga has shot 9-of-17 from deep during the month of March, but spots like that are where this wrinkle, where the weak-side player at the wing cuts to remove any help at the nail, could stand to be used more liberally.

Plus, if the big can’t shoot (or even if they can), that type of movement has the potential to create more options, as the popper can also flow into a hand-off and play through the player rising up from the corner or find the player cutting the stunt, depending upon how the defense reacts. Either way, there’s a means for getting to the next action, rather than solely being limited to whether the screener is hitting from the outside.

Flipping expectations by flipping sides of the floor

When the Pacers run double drags or stack, the action is almost always constructed for Tyrese to attack going to his right. In Atlanta, for example, although he punished Trae Young’s anticipatory defense by crossing back to his left and firing from three, the screens were placed for him to pilot the pick-and-roll with his strong hand.

With that in mind, look at what adjustment was made against Sacramento.

With the action reflected on the opposite side of the floor, here’s what effectively is being communicated: You can’t force me to go left, I’ll force myself to go left — only with the benefit of a screen. In essence, rather than reversing the angle on the pick and maybe slithering across the lane into a pull-up two (if he takes it), the play is intentionally designed for Tyrese to dribble off the pick going to his left, which is the key difference. By starting on the right and leaning into what the defense wants him to do, he regains the advantage, with Mitchell, instead, trailing in rearview pursuit and Barnes slow to jump out toward the ball.

Play 4-on-4

This trend continued in the second half, as more screens were set for him on his left as opposed to his right. Again, even with Mitchell chasing over and veering into the roller, Haliburton notably wants no part of the switch, but watch what happens after the pass.

Slowly drifting away to the perimeter toward half-court while his teammates execute the offense, Haliburton tethers Alex Len out to sea, taking away a potential help defender from the defense and creating more freedom for Duane Washington Jr. to get to the basket.

That’s a gravity assist and also the double-edged sword of switching at the five position. To be clear, every opponent won’t be as hyper-focused on Haliburton as the Kings were in this particular contest, but the more time bigs spend switched out on the perimeter, the less they are available to protect the rim against secondary actions.

No screen, no scheme

Of course, with minimal assembly required, arguably the simplest way to avoid being weaked is to play with pace and attack without a screen.

In order to do that, however, the ball has to be advanced quickly — which is why possessions like this, where Haliburton appears as though he is about ready to jump out of his skin calling for the outlet pass, can’t happen.

That said, beyond racing the other way, when opponents take away both the open three and interior penetration out of drive-and-kick, it helps that Buddy Hield has shown he can do something with the ball against tilted defenses, increasing his pick-and-roll frequency, including passes, from 23 percent in Sacramento to 33 percent with the Pacers.

Going deeper

In that regard, while purposefully inbounding to Hield against pressure in crunch-time is arguably a bridge too far (sigh), flipping the ball to him in the half-court for Haliburton to then get it back on the move served the purpose of losing Mitchell as a shadow.

More importantly, though, with his new check, Donte DiVincenzo, also weaking him, he kept his dribble alive, even going so far as to wheel around the baseline into a shot.

For the game, Tyrese finished 4-of-14 from the field, including 0-of-4 during crunch-time, but those extra steps in which he probed the defense were a proverbial step forward on a night when, while forced left and into switches, he also became the first player this season to record 15 assists without committing a single turnover.

All of which is to say that, in a game that wasn’t just like any other game as far as adapting to and counterpunching against a personalized scheme executed by a team that knows him personally, there can still be meaning in defeat and progress, even on an off-night.