Against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday night Reggie Jackson took over the last half of the 4th quarter, accounting for 19 straight Pistons points with his scoring or assists to bring the Pistons back to win a close game. Let's go possession by possession through the nine possessions and deep dive into how Reggie Jackson takes over the 4th quarter and why he is so effective.
This game showed a fairly regular pattern for the Pistons so far this year. Most of the game they roll with a heavily motion-based offense featuring lots of dribble hand-offs and back-cuts often focusing around Andre Drummond. However, down the stretch of close games, they go rather heavily back, to the staple of having Reggie Jackson run pick and rolls with Andre Drummond, and occasionally Tobias Harris. This made particular sense against the Timberwolves, Jeff Teague isn't a bad defender but he isn't all that good and Karl-Anthony Towns continues to struggle defensively, especially against Andre Drummond who he has yet to beat in his young career.
On this particular play, the Pistons run a straight spread pick and roll and the Wolves actually defend it pretty well initially and Jackson probably takes a dribble too many into the paint. Fortunately, Drummond's roll to the paint worries Jimmy Butler enough, to crash down even though he probably didn't have to and Jackson see's it just in time to toss a pass to the corner to an open Avery Bradley. Even though this play was not overly crisp and required a bit of a misstep by the Timberwolves, this is an area where Jackson has always thrived in his career. He has a good handle and thanks to his crazy-long arms combined with his good size (for a point guard) he can keep control of his dribble very low while still being able to see the floor even in a crowded paint. Even though it took a bit of a mistake by the Wolves, Jackson and Drummond both crashing into the paint puts serious pressure on defenses which causes mistakes. Regardless, this play was not a brilliant one but is something Jackson is very good at making working.
Once again the Pistons run a straight spread pick and roll without any window dressing, but this time they execute much better while the Wolves defend it very poorly. The Wolves start their mistakes with Towns deciding to hedge and show clearly to one side of the pick for reasons that are not abundantly clear. Jackson decides that since Towns has so kindly given him a driving lane to swerve away from the pick and gets into the lane. Teague actually does a decent job of catching back up to Jackson and keeping him from getting all the way to the hoop, but Jackson is able to use his size advantage to toss up one of his goofy sort of floater, sort of layup, shots to bank it in. Please also note that even if Jackson had missed the shot, Towns decided he didn't feel like guarding anyone and Drummond is largely untouched for the follow-up. Also please note that even if Teague or Towns had managed to totally wall off Jackson, Avery Bradley is totally forgotten and cutting free to the hoop as Butler falls asleep. This was going to be a bucket one way or another and Towns is the biggest culprit.
At the point of attack it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to show so clearly to one side of the pick against a guy who is as comfortable with both hands as Jackson (or indeed, most NBA point guards) is, but the biggest problem is how he recovers. He sort of follows Jackson, but not close enough to even contest Jackson's shot, but stays close enough that he isn't stopping Drummond from getting an offensive rebound or even an alley-oop lob if Jackson had chosen to go that way. If he sticks with Jackson then Drummond is going open, and if he sticks with Drummond then Jackson is going open, but he has to choose one and commit, on this play he guards no one. (Also worth noting, the initial mistake of Towns showing and giving Jackson a lane could be more on Teague. It is possible the Wolves wanted Towns to show and have Teague stay over screens a moment extra to ensure Jackson can't go that way. That wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to me since it essentially is funneling Jackson into the lane where he wants to be, but it is possible.)
Once again the Pistons run a straight spread pick and roll without any dressing on it, and on initial viewing, it doesn't look all that notable. Jackson finds Braley out of the corner with a nice pass right away and Bradley gets a lucky bounce for the ball to go in. But that pass is not just a nice pass, that is one of the finest bits of passing you will see. Have a look at it again in slow motion.
The Wolves have not done anything wrong defensively. Butler is down in the paint to cover for Towns in case of a blow-by, Towns is positioned just fine to keep Jackson in front of him, and Teague is right behind Jackson to get back into the play. But Jackson knows exactly where the defense will be positioned based on the previous two possessions and the moment he sees daylight past the screen you can see he starts to load up that pass and he knew exactly where it was going from the moment this play started given that he hit Teague with a little extra hesitation dribble to freeze him to ensure enough space to slingshot this pass. Even beyond having the floor knowledge and vision to see that gap in the first place, this is a crazy difficult pass to make. If that pass is any slower or off target even a little bit, Jimmy Butler is recovering right on time and it's contested, if he is any more than a beat slower then that pass is picked off for a turnover. Making that kind of pass with one hand while on the move is just absurd, it is the sort of pass that makes people say LeBron James is one of the best passers ever to live. Simply put, the most impressive plays are the ones that are so good that you beat the defense even though they don't make a mistake, and that is exactly what this pass was. Absolutely brilliant play by Jackson and probably his finest of the night.
Once again, straight pick and roll without any extras. This time Jackson gets to the lane and decides he has enough space to pull up for a floater on which he is fouled by a recovering Jeff Teague, Jackson would go to the line and split the pair. There isn't a whole lot of note in this possession, Jackson is an expert at those running hook shots in that area and the Wolves gave him enough space to let him take it.
This possession starts out with Jackson trying, unsuccessfully, to push the ball in transition. Drummond almost loses it doing a dribble handoff sequence with Bradley before they decide to just go right back to the pick and roll well and Jackson finds Drummond for a lob which Drummond has to actually make a nice finish as he was too far from the hoop for a dunk.
The thing to look at here is Jimmy Butler. Remember that pass to Bradley in the corner that I gushed about a bit ago? That play makes this play. This time as Drummond rumbles down the lane, Butler takes a step out towards Bradley to ensure that he is not burned by a corner three for the 3rd time, which in turn allows Drummond a free lane to finish a somewhat off-target alley-oop. The Timberwolves biggest problem on this play remains Towns, who is put in an admittedly losing situation here given that Teague gets totally picked off yet again and Butler is now wary of helping on the roll, but he gets caught in no man's land again. He really needs to learn to commit to one option or the other in this situation, either go out to Jackson and take away the runner and force a blind toss to Drummond and hope the toss is off or Butler will read it and get there in time to help, or stay off Jackson and take away Drummond and hope that Teague recovers to contest or Drummond rolls too close which would allow Towns to get a last-second contest on Jackson. Where he is, he is guarding no one, Jackson has an open lob or runner available to him and those are both going to result in points more often than not.
As far as Butler's decision to stay outside, it was probably the wrong choice given that by the point at which he decides to step out of the paint Jackson doesn't really have a passing lane to Bradley, but those are the predicaments that Jackson's passing puts the defense in and can almost be viewed as a forced mistake.
Here the Pistons finally switch it up a bit from straight pick and roll. They open up with a pick and roll to the side of the court, but it is within their normal motion offense and instead of using as a way to generate an immediate look it is more-so used as a way to start the defense scrambling. After a couple of quick dribble hand-offs the ball ends up with Drummond just inside the arc and Jackson comes up to receive the ball and gets Towns switched onto him, Teague quickly catches back up and Towns recovers to Drummond, but too slow as Jackson makes another great slingshot pass to Drummond who makes a quick move right to the hoop for a layup.
Two things to highlight on this play that are maybe not abundantly obvious upon first viewing. First off is that, even though Jackson and Drummond finish this play, it is actually all started and made possible by Stanley Johnson setting a great screen off the ball on Jeff Teague as Jackson makes his run up to the ball. Teague ends up so far behind the play that Towns has no choice but to do a full on switch onto Jackson (as opposed to just showing to keep him from the lane) which is why Drummond gets so open in the first place. The second thing is that this was a really nice move to score by Drummond. Even though Towns is slow to recover, it is a small window, and Drummond begins to turn to the hoop in the same motion as catching the ball which allows him to just barely beat Towns in getting the shot up.
The Timberwolves actually do a nice job of snuffing out the initial pick and roll action by Teague making a heady play to go way under the screen as it is set too far out for Jackson to be any real shooting threat, and then Towns totally walls Jackson off from the paint. If Jackson were feeling particularly brave he might've made a looping pass to Stanley Johnson in the corner but Wiggins would've likely been right on it to contest the shot or possibly even intercept it. After Jackson resets the Pistons go right back into the action though, and while Teague once again is picked off too easily, the Timberwolves actually play this one pretty well, just the Jackson/Drummond pick and roll is going to generally create an open look.
Towns does a nice job containing Jackson until Teague catches back up while Gibson comes down to keep Drummond from getting a free run at the hoop, Teague recovers and Towns stays in a decent spot to contest a lob or a shot from Jackson, and Jackson ends up making a pretty tough floater. That is a shot that Jackson is good at hitting, but the Wolves did fine and Jackson just hit a tough shot.
Nothing overly worth explaining here. Jackson gets the rebound after a couple of tips gets out into transition and hits a toughly contested finger-roll at the hoop. Excellent play by Jackson but pretty straightforward.
Ho baby. After deciding to reset after the first action doesn't give Jackson anything he likes, Teague is picked off again forcing a switch on Towns, but there isn't anything strategical beyond that. Towns played him well and Jackson just went and got a bucket. Towns did fine and defended the whole possession decently as a team to force a contested jumper as the shot clock wound down, this one was all Reggie Jackson being awesome. From here the Pistons were just a missed Jimmy Butler free throw from victory.
So why don't they go to the pick and roll more all game?
That is a bit of a common discussion point among Piston's people, and Stan Van Gundy has even said it is something he has wrestled with a bit. This Pistons team was built as a spread pick and roll team, and their best two players (Jackson and Drummond) were born to run pick and rolls together.
First off is that, regardless of results, there is a real benefit to running a more motion based offense due to the fact that it gets everyone involved. Everyone is touching the ball, passing the ball, and moving constantly instead of standing at the three point line watching Jackson and Drummond play basketball. This is particularly true of Drummond, who the Pistons had to find a new way to get involved in the offense given that they (rightfully) decided to shelf his post up game. Everyone is happier and more involved and that helps make sure everyone plays hard on defense and stays happy in the locker room, both of which were at times issues for the Pistons to varying degrees last year.
Beyond the intangible effects, it has (so far) had a great effect on a lot of guys games. Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley are both having career years with their scoring efficiency while also putting up career highs in shot attempts, Stanley Johnson has looked like a consistently viable offensive player for the first time in his young career, and Andre Drummond has more than tripled his career mark for assists per game.
Even Jackson seems to be benefiting from the change. His per game numbers are down from his peak in his first year and a half with the Pistons, (and toss out last year's injury riddles season from hell) but a big part of that is actually due to the fact that he is playing just 28.3 minutes per game. Per 36 minutes Jackson is putting up the second-best mark of his career at 19.9 points per 36 minutes, behind only his monster 2015-16 season where he averaged 22.1 per 36 minutes, while at the same time averaging a career high in assists while putting up his best ever assist to turnover ratio. He also is posting his best true shooting percentage (55.4%) by a pretty wide margin. I think that it all is sort of two-fold. On one hand, the motion offense is working totally on its own for generating good looks for everybody and Jackson has benefitted from not having to carry such an absurd offensive load (posting his lowest usage rate as a Piston, by far) and getting to play off the ball a bit more, and on the other hand I think that it allows him to be even more effective as a closer because he hasn't had to carry such a heavy load the rest of the game. He also has consistently played better defense than he ever has before in his career which also is likely very closely linked to his lessened offensive burden.
Should they diversify the late game offense a bit more though? They literally ran 9 straight pick and rolls
Well on a night like this where a 1-5 pick and roll is clearly the soft spot in the defense it makes sense to just go to it endlessly. Some games they have gotten Tobias Harris more involved by making him the screener for Jackson or as a ball-handler with Drummond setting the pick. I'm not sure how much I trust Drummond's decision making with the ball in his hands to be a regular guy in crunch time, which is ok since he has only just started to take on that role and will continue to grow into it. As long as the action focuses on Jackson and Harris then I'm fine with it not being overly complex. The more complex and cute you get with the offense the more likely you are to get bad turnovers, and Jackson, Drummond, and Harris are all good enough at the things they do at the end of games that I'm fine with putting the game on the line by saying “Our best guys are going to beat your best guys” so while it would't kill the Pistons to maybe get a little less predictable down the stretch, and there are going to be times this year where Jackson will miss contested jumpers to lose a game, it is not any sort of an issue.
What do you think? Should they diversify the late game offense more? Should they run more pick and roll the rest of the game or stay motion heavy?