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The Greatest Play in Basketball

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

The Mavericks offense might depend on Monta Ellis’ ability to drive to the rim, but the most dangerous weapon in the team’s potent offensive arsenal is routinely unleashed in the simplest play in the book.

Heading into last night’s thrashing of the Orlando Magic, Dallas was averaging 1.24 points per Ellis drive, the highest total of any player in the top 30 in drives per game. And although Ellis also leads the league in points per drive by a healthy margin, Dallas’ most effective offensive play often has nothing to do with Ellis. The other Mavericks, namely (and mostly) Dirk Nowitzki, take part in what might be the most successful play in basketball: the pick and fade.Shotchart_1389676626382

The German is shooting a terrifying 68.4 percent on long twos along the left baseline this season, a number that is as shocking as it is puzzling. “Long two” has practically become a curse word in the NBA lexicon, but Nowitzki completely embraces the shot. From the opposite corner, he’s shooting a respectable 53.9 percent, but it’s his performance on the left side — and, more specifically, how Dallas gets him those shots — that keeps his impressive efficiency in line with what we’re used to seeing.

To understand how Nowitzki so effortlessly finds open shots in an area from which he’s shooting with mind-boggling efficiency, it’s important to first examine how Dallas sets it up. Football and basketball have almost nothing in common, but the way the Mavericks set up the defense for Nowitzki’s fade to the left corner is very similar to the way NFL offensive coordinators call run plays to set up the play action. Dallas shows a plain look, and then adds slight variations to it throughout the game.

Here’s probably the most basic set in the Mavericks’ playbook, called “High 4.” It’s a pick-and-pop for Nowitzki and the point guard, who in this case is Jose Calderon. For whatever reason, during this play both Pelicans defenders are really interested in Calderon’s drive to the rim, even though Calderon shoots layups about as often as Jason Kidd did during his time in Dallas. Calderon finds Dirk at the three-point line before he’s driven off the line (very well) by Anthony Davis. But an open jumper for Dirk is, as the Pelicans play-by-play announcer said during a Dallas win the night before, a layup.

The most important action in that play (as it relates to the pick and fade) is Nowitzki’s popping to the three-point line. Later, that won’t be the case. Most of this movement and spacing is based around Dallas’ “flow offense,” which involves Nowitzki coming down the center of the court and either screening for the point guard, or receiving a pass and swinging it to what once was the weakside, hence setting up the pick and fade. A few minutes prior, Nowitzki did just that, tossing the ball to Ellis on the wing.

Ellis is brilliant when it comes to absorbing and then driving around a trap off a screen. Anthony Davis is an athletic specimen, but not even he can stay in front of Ellis as he turns the corner. Jason Smith, then, is the last man standing between Ellis and an easy layup. That leaves Nowitzki with miles of space from his sweetest spot.

In the fourth quarter of the same game, Dallas ran the same exact action, only this time Nowitzki set the screen for Calderon, who was then blitzed again by Davis, the man responsible for guarding at that point a red-hot Nowitzki (he made seven consecutive field goals during the third and fourth quarters en route to 40 points). Greg Stiemsma, the responsible defender that he is, isn’t going to let Nowitzki get an open look from the baseline. So Dirk patiently waits for Brandan Wright to look for the pass, which he does (he always does). Layup. Notice Ellis in the weakside corner, as well. If Wright makes the catch and the layup isn’t there, he can easily reverse it to the shooter in the corner.

Then, on the Mavericks’ very next possession, we see the same exact set again:

Stiemsma just can’t win. He either concedes a Wright layup or lets Dirk take one of his own, and this one was a swish. It’s important to mention here that because Nowitzki frequently slips screens instead of setting hard picks, it frees him up for quicker fades, pops, and rolls. If he were to seal off Eric Gordon, in this example, Gordon would likely stick to Nowitzki after the screen, resulting in either a mismatch in the post or a reset. However, because he rarely makes physical contact, he’s inviting a double-team off the screen while simultaneously freeing himself up for a shot.

The night before Saturday’s win against the Pelicans, Dallas played in New Orleans and won that game as well. Off-screen, Shane Larkin received a Nowitzki pass in the corner. Then something that’s sometimes a basketball sin happens: Nowitzki sets a ball screen in the corner.

Again, Nowitzki barely makes contact with Rivers. Yes, he’s rotating his body as he’s “screening,” and is therefore possibly committing an offensive foul, but at this point in his career he’s not going to be called for it. Dallas ran this set with minor variations five or six times that night against the Pelicans. Larkin finished with six assists; five went to Nowitzki. Note that this isn’t just a play Dallas abused New Orleans with because of a certain matchup or opponent weakness. The Mavericks have been running this play all season.

It’s nearly impossible for a player to shoot 70 percent from one spot on the floor, unless that spot is at the rim (and even in that case, it’s still nearly unheard of). Considering Nowitzki’s hottest spot is the deep left baseline, accepted NBA knowledge suggests Dirk is doing the impossible. He’s taken exactly one three from the left corner this season and 38 shots from one or two steps just in front of the line, but if he’s going to keep shooting 70 percent from that spot, I don’t think he’ll hear any complaints. And so long as he continues knocking down those jumpers — likely, considering he’s always wide open — the Mavericks’ pick and fade will continue to be perhaps the best play in basketball.

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