Breaking Down The Phoenix Suns Spain Pick & Roll Plays
A complete breakdown of all of the Suns' variations out of their best play, the Spain pick & roll.
I have been obsessed with Monty Williams’ playbook since he took over the Suns last season, with complex tricky actions combined with an incredible ability to own the play after the initial play breaks down - the “Play after the Play” (shoutout Cody Toppert!) Although the Suns run the most Horns sets out of any team in the NBA, their most effective action this postseason has been their “Spain Pick & Roll” & the multiple variations to disguise it. Combining one of the toughest actions to guards with one of the highest IQ & well-drilled passing teams and you’ve got problems on defense.
What is Spain pick and roll?
Spain pick and roll is a ballscreen in the middle of the floor set by a big, and at the same time, a guard sets a backscreen on the ballscreener’s defender.
In the picture above, Chris Paul was the ballhandler with DeAndre Ayton setting the ballscreen in the middle of the floor and Devin Booker set the backscreen on Ayton’s defender Javale McGee.
Why is it called Spain pick and roll?
I first saw this action over in Europe run by the Spanish national team, so I decided to call it “Spain” after watching the Spain National Team running this action. Here is the initial video I did showing some of the sets and variations on it from 2015:
European teams have run this action a ton over the past 15 years, with one of the first Spain sets I have ever seen back in 2009. I am still on the hunt for the original Spain set or at least the earliest version I can find, so if you have any insight - let me know!
The original Spain set that I first saw was at EuroBasket 2015, in the final Spain opened up the game with their basic Spain action with the 4/5 involved with Mirotic as the back screener.
The next variation throughout the same game was started off with decoy action out of the common “Slice Stagger” set. Instead of flowing into a spread ballscreen or looking for a post-up, they use the guard coming off the slice screen as the back screener. They carved up Lithuania with this action and then Lithuania stole this set and killed teams with it with an awesome twist.
NBA teams have called traditionally called it stack, the Suns appear to call it “Money” (or possibly pinch or even snap (snap fingers set), but I think it’s money because it’s more fun and it would actually be their “money” set.
Here is the problem with my naming system. The Pelicans under - guess who - Monty Williams ran this action with Anthony Davis & Ryan Anderson in 2014, so this technically was something I saw before the Spanish national team. I made a full edit on it and everything, but because it wasn’t with a guard it didn’t stick, I am not sure. My editing, analyzing & naming system evolved so I am going to give my old self a pass and I hope you will too.
Why is it so difficult to guard?
It has grown SO much in popularity over the last 4-5 years and especially this season in the NBA & College, so why then does it continue to be so hard to guard? Let’s talk about the basic idea of the best way to defend Spain pick & roll.
1 - Drop big to get under the backscreen
2 - Guard defending the backscreen switch onto the ball
3 - Guard defending the ball switch on the pop from the guard setting the backscreen
In the above example, we can see that Dwight recognizes the backscreen, gets under it, and then Maxey and Shake switch on the guards. Even in the best scenario - Milton was almost caught in no man’s land but recovered just in time to the pop. Now that we know how basic Spain pick & roll works and the (probably) best way to defend it - let’s dive into the Suns running it to look at the counters and reads the Suns employ.
The Suns will run their normal Spain pick and roll with no setup, just going right into the main action:
Bigs Up Higher
Let’s look at some of the reads the Suns use against the various defensive coverages. In the Lakers series, the bigs of the Lakers such as Gasol/Drummond tried to keep the bigs at the level of the ballscreen. If the guard can, they reject and turn the corner catching the bigs out of position:
Because the bigs are at the level of the ballscreen, the backscreen is able to catch them on the high side and so when help comes this leaves the roll man open:
Another example of the backscreen causing issues for the defense, here MPJ is trying to switch on the roller but Millsap also recovers back to the roller and CP3 ends up WIDE open for a 3:
In the switch example, we showed when the guards don’t switch seamlessly, it can lead to an open jump shot for the pop man:
Bigs In Drop
The most common way that I mentioned and likely the best way is to drop the big and switch the guards, but when you drop the big underneath then go under the ballscreen and the backscreener’s defender has to stay attached to a superstar like Devin Booker - the result is a wide-open 3 for the ballhandler:
When there is nobody to screen, the Suns will do a great job of having the back screener “leak” out to the opposite wing, leaving the big completely out of position and allowing players like Chris Paul to get wide-open looks from his patented mid-range game:
When the big in drop does a good job of containing, then CP3 will drag him out and look for the roller when the defense switches back on to him:
Another example of the problems the leak creates vs Drop coverage, check out Marc Gasol in this play. He is turning and looking for the backscreen and loses sight of Chris Paul coming downhill, creating issues for him and allowing the bucket:
When the defense does do a good job executing the “Drop & Switch” coverage Chris Paul then finds the weakest defender on the other team - MPJ here - and then calmly attacks the switch. Check him out here telling Crowder to set the backscreen at the beginning of the play:
With Anthony Davis on the court, the Lakers were able to switch seamlessly and be able to recover that resulted in a contested miss shot:
When CP3 notices you are switching, he can make you pay for it. Here he snakes against Anthony Davis who might have been trying to execute the same coverage as above, forcing him to switch, and then Ayton seals the guard deep in the paint against the switch everything:
We saw several examples above of how the Leak creates problems specifically vs drop coverage. The Suns’ guards setting the back screen have the read to leak to the wing when they don’t think they will be able to actually set the backscreen. The Kings crushed teams with this set last year with Buddy Hield as the screener.
Horns Out Miami Spain
I first saw this play from the Utah Jazz in the 2018-19 season, and I quickly stole it and added it to my playbook, just like it seems Monty Williams did.
Starting out of the Suns’ Horns formation, which is normally with a screen for the elbow to cut to the wing, Booker receives the pass on the run and hands it off to the cornerman. Right after the ball gets swung back to the point guard, Booker then cuts inside the lane to become the backscreen in Spain pick and roll action. This is really tough to guard since the point guard can now go either way not using a live dribble and the big is so focused on the ballscreen in defense he will not usually notice the backscreen right away and this creates chaos.
Horns Out Spain
The Suns start off the Horns play the same way as previously mentioned by screening for the other elbow who then continues to the opposite corner. The big then sets a ballscreen and the player in the corner becomes the backscreen in Spain action, this play is also set up since the Suns run this play into a basic spread pick and roll.
Horns Out Spain - Gut Pin Counter
When teams get aggressive defending Spain pick and roll by trapping or hard hedging the Suns will go to a pindown in the middle of the floor - something I call “gut” action. Since bigs are going to be looking to recover back to the paint worrying about the roll man, the Suns catch teams off guard with this and is a tough guard for the defense.
Spain - Gut Pin Counter
Same example here with the normal Spain action.
Pop Gut Chicago - Spain Counter
When talking about the Suns’ offense in these playoffs, their “Pop Gut Chicago” play probably deserves its own breakdown (which may or may not be coming soon). It is so lethal and difficult to guard for the defense as it’s designed to get a guard coming off the handoff downhill and forces the big’s coverage to essentially react to what the offense is doing.
Also, I just want to include this example of an awesome Gut Chicago play from Bucknell - check it out!
Example of the basic Spain Pick & Roll from sideline out of bounds:
SOB Dribble Spain
Another example of Spain from sideline out of bounds, a counter to their “Dribble” play which would be a hand-off into a ballscreen. In this counter, they have the player who cuts off the first screen become the back screener.
Ram 2 Chase Spain
Monty Williams’ after-time-out plays are AWESOME and everyone should study and pay attention to them. In this example, they tweak what would normally be a double ballscreen involving Booker/Ayton and then Crowder would exit out to the corner - creating “Shake” action. Instead of that, Crowder cuts into the lane for the Spain action, but since the cornerman falls asleep Payne finds it for an easy corner 3.
Wide vs Top Lock - Spain
I mentioned this read to Devin Booker being denied out of the Suns’ “Wide” action or a single screen in the middle of the floor, flowing right into Spain action. So here we basically have a counter to the counter read going into one of the toughest actions to guard. I love watching the Suns!
I really really enjoy the Phoenix Suns playbook and offense, almost every possession has been a joy to watch. With some time off to scout and prep for their next opponent, I cannot wait to see what Monty Williams and the Suns’ staff come up with for the next round.