The Clippers & Bucks Drop Coverage Adjustments
A dive into how the Clippers & Bucks made subtle adjustments that allowed them to slow down Devin Booker & Trae Young in ballscreen defense.
Throughout the 2021 NBA Playoffs, there has been a lot of dialogue over the Drop ballscreen coverage that teams play when defending ball screens, with most of the focus on two teams - the Milwaukee Bucks & Los Angeles Clippers. Brook Lopez is one of the best rim protectors in the NBA and the Bucks have played the same drop coverage for the last few years, but the recent struggles against the Heat in the playoffs last season and in the last series vs the Nets and now game 1 vs the Hawks and Trae Young. Similarly, Ivica Zubac was completely played off the floor in the first round when Luka Doncic absolutely destroyed him in ballscreen coverage, and he struggled to see the floor vs the Jazz when the Clippers ultimately decided that playing small was the way to beat the Jazz.
In the current Eastern and Western conference finals, the Clippers went down 2-0 struggling to find their best lineups, and the Bucks went down 1-0 when Trae Young dropped 48 & 11 and was in complete control. Both teams had to make adjustments - they have to be able to play their bigs to create their best chances of winning. In the Clippers case, they were getting hurt playing smaller vs the Suns with both Ayton & Saric being able to actually score against switching and smaller players, add in their injury issues with Kawhi being out indefinitely and Morris struggling with a knee injury - their devastating small-ball lineups were not having the same impact. When it comes to the Bucks, they needed to find a way to keep Lopez on the floor, we all know in the playoffs it is so important to just play your best players so keeping Lopez on the court as a rim protector and a good offensive rebounder as well as a threat from deep, the Bucks also had to find a solution (Plus, we know Budenholzer prefers to play Lopez & the drop as we have seen throughout his time with the Bucks). Below is a video of the Bucks drop ballscreen coverage so you can get a little more familiar with how they play this defense.
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What is Drop Coverage?
Drop coverage is a type of ballscreen defense that involves keeping your big & usually best rim protector below the ballscreen and in the paint to prevent scoring opportunities at the rim. Although we generally associate the bigs - I am definitely at fault for this and working on it - with this coverage, as well as any defense, is that all 5 players have to work together to stop all 5 players on offense in the pick and roll from scoring. The idea behind this defense is to slow down teams from scoring at the rim, usually “allowing” players to score in the floater & mid-range game. In the NBA non-paint, two’s are the least efficient shot compared to others and the Drop Coverage is designed to “allow” contested non-paint two’s.
What I have been talking much about is what the other 4 players are doing defensively on the court, and how they are impacting the player with the ball. Typically the ballhandler’s defender will be harassing him, and forcing him to use the ballscreen and fight like crazy to not be screened and chase over the top of the lane.
The players not involved in the ballscreen defense, we will call these the “3” in this breakdown, have different options based on how the coaching staff wants to guard different teams. Generally speaking, the two main options are to sag off into driving lanes or staying attached to shooters. When teams sag off into driving lanes that will be against players like Steph, Dame, Luka, & Trae Young who are so gifted at scoring at all 3 levels with a weaker supporting cast and you will make the other players beat you. If teams are going to stay attached on shooters, this will typically be against teams that can shooter really well OR are designing their offense to shoot a lot of 3’s, such as teams like the Jazz or when Harden played for the Rockets.
The “3” staying attached:
The “3” sagging off:
What are the weaknesses?
If you have a player, let’s use a hypothetical here, that can get into the lane with shifty moves and be one of the best floater finishers in the NBA as well as one of the best passers, then the Drop Coverage can be tricky. Yes, Trae Young is a nightmare to defend (breakdown coming soon on him) since he is so great at almost everything he does on offense so defenses need to have plans for him to either stop his scoring or playmaking.
Players like Devin Booker can take advantage of their pull-up game around the elbows and use their separation to score easier against trailing guards. This leads us to another weakness if the perimeter defenders are unable to fight through the screens and recover to put rear pressure on the ballhandler, this will allow too much space and force the big to be more aggressive against quicker guards.
When the guards are able to get downhill this can lead to switches, scores, or offensive rebounds since now a guard has to clean up on a big roller crashing the glass.
Milwaukee Bucks Adjustments
Throughout game 1, the Bucks made it clear that they were going to let Trae Young & the rest of the Hawks play in the lane vs a deep drop from Lopez and stay attached on shooters.
In the above clip, we see Trae getting into the lane with relative ease and Lopez waiting for him deep in the paint. Giannis & PJ are not attacking Trae on the drive and staying attached to their man.
Middleton would normally stay attached to Huerter here since he is the “Shake” tag man and they normally don’t help off shooters.
For some reason, Budenholzer played Teague in game 1 and had Jrue Holiday on the floor but kept Teague on Trae. 8 points in about 50 seconds, and Trae got his rhythm back and Lopez had no chance to defend.
The biggest problem that the Bucks had in Game 1 was containing Trae Young and allowing him acres of space to play in the mid-range floater area. They were staying attached on the “3” and allowing Trae Young to score on them as well as allowing Young to collect 11 assists to the roll man and cutters.
When we look through these clips we can see the Bucks were really focused on allowing Trae Young to play 2 on 2 in the ballscreen and stay out on the Hawks that are spacing the floor. The biggest adjustment that we will see from Game 1 to Game 2 is the Bucks “Shrinking the Floor.” I am not going to dive too deep into this since we covered this extensively in our course on how to watch X’s & O’s - link below.
The whole goal of shrinking the floor is to make the offense player see bodies and not allow them to play freely in space. Against a player like Trae Young, this is crucial since his size can be used against him if you have length to throw at him and keep his driving lanes to a minimum. This keeps Lopez at the rim, length on Trae Young, and makes everyone else on the Hawks make plays.
Here is an example of the pictures of the floor that Trae Young saw in game 1, compared to the floor that Trae Young saw in game 2.
On any Trae Young drive, the next closest Milwaukee Buck defender is going to stunt at the drive and make him hesitate. This is extremely important since this can allow the ballhandler to recover if he is out of position. Here Middleton is guarding the corner, so he should not help since that opens up an easy corner 3 - he stunts at the drive of Trae Young and then sits back in position to recover to his man.
A favorite set from the Hawks in the series is to go to Chicago action, or a pindown into a dribble hand-off to get a guard going downhill and especially attack the drop coverage of Lopez. In game 1 the Hawks were able to get floaters and easier looks with this action, although not considered a ballscreen this is still considered drop coverage.
In game 2, we can see the difference below, PJ fights to get underneath and then forces it to Bogdanovic’s weak hand. As he uses the ballscreen the bucks “3” shrink the floor and make it a tough contested pullup that results in a miss.
Here are the two pictures highlighting the difference between staying attached and sagging off against the same action - the subtle adjustment from Game 1 to Game 2.
The Hawks are the number one team in the NBA when it comes to running the Double Ballscreen, although last year’s Celtics would be up there with Kemba. In game 1 the Hawks went to their Double Ballscreen action 16 times, and it caused the Bucks a lot of issues. The common way the Bucks defended it was to switch the first screen and then Drop the second. Doing this allowed the Hawks to get Jrue Holiday off Trae Young and usually involve Giannis/Lopez defending the ballscreen. Giannis is a fantastic defender but ballscreen handler is not his strength on defense to the Hawks took advantage of this and really created a lot of scoring opportunities.
In game 2, the Hawks ran this action 3 times. 3 times the entire game. The game really wasn’t a blowout until near the end of the 1st half, so really there was no reason to not go to this action more. I expect the Hawks to run this way more in the rest of the series, but the Bucks didn’t have to deal with the best play the Hawks used.
Los Angeles Clippers Adjustments
The Clippers’ adjustments were not as drastic as the Bucks going from staying on shooters to send all the bodies they have at Trae Young, but they were probably just as important.
First and foremost it is extremely important to pay attention to the positioning of Ivica Zubac when the ballscreen is set. In Game 1 he was much further out of the paint, essentially at the 3 point line when every ballscreen was set.
In game 2, it was slightly different but essentially the same story, Zubac was higher up almost at the level and out of the paint to try and prevent pullup jump shots. The Clippers did a solid job around him but the focus was still to allow Booker or Payne to score and not playmake as much.
When it came to game 3, Zubac’s positioning was much further back almost at the free-throw line waiting for Booker or CP3 to come to him. Unleashing Patrick Beverly on Devin Booker to harass him all game, and then keeping length like Terance Mann, Batum and Paul George on the ballhandlers means that CP3 & Booker had to attack quicker and deeper which allowed Zubac to contest anything around the paint.
Here are two examples from game 1 to game 3 of his positioning against the ball screens from the Suns.
Shrinking the Floor
In combination with adjusting the starting position of Zubac the Clippers also did a good job of stunting & shrinking the floor just like the Bucks. They always made an attempt in game 3 to make the floor smaller, as well as forcing the drives into where their big-in-help defense is.
The Clippers’ adjustment was just a tweak to their normal ballscreen defense and if CP3/Booker get into their normal pull-up game, it could be more of an issue for the Clippers. But if they keep shrinking the floor, and keeping Zubac in a great position they will find similar success as game 3.
I hope you enjoyed this breakdown, if you did please share with others & look forward to seeing what the next adjustments are for all of these games!