The pick and roll is the most effective play in the sport of basketball. Everyone at every level of the game knows this. A simple two-man maneuver—with an incredibly wide range of variance, nuance, and execution—this basic strategy has beguiled and disarmed defenses for decades.
In the NBA today, it is even more effective than when it first came into major vogue, because of how difficult the league has made it for defenders to battle back against it. Getting around the screen, that thing that first ignites the killing permutation, is always your best hope against a pick and roll, but rare (perhaps non-existent) is the player who’s allowed to fight over a stand-still big man running into place at their side, and not get called for a foul in their effort.
All of this truth, and more, makes it all the more frustrating when elite big men talents are reluctant to play as steady roll men. There is little glory in screening, and even less in not getting the ball after it, because your point guard decision maker decides that, while he appreciates your efforts, he has better fruit to find from your work than the kind that puts the ball into your hands.
Being a roll man is no guarantee that you will get touches—and in fact, for many, it’s a lock-and-seal assurance that you won’t get the kinds of touches that you favor. How can you prove that you’ve got a veritable “bag”—the latest key word of the basketball-illiterate, appraising someone’s offensive skills without knowing how offense works—when you don’t get the ball at the top of the key, and demonstrably break down your defender in isolation?
Deandre Ayton doesn’t seem worried about any of this. Many in sports media want to credit Chris Paul for this development, and that seems like a sensible place to go when sizing up his evolution. But whatever the cause may be, it’s clear that the Phoenix Suns big man, in his third season at 22 years old, has figured out his place in basketball’s biggest offensive truth, accepting himself as the tip of a spear he almost never decides the trajectory of.
It’s a huge part of why his team is two victories away from an NBA championship. It’s also a major reason they would’ve contended for one in any number of versions of this much-debated postseason, in which a historic number of injuries to major players has decidedly injected a lot of extra randomness into the results—giving much ammo to rival fanbases eager to apply salty, tear-stained asterisks to anything accomplished without their guys on the main stage.
Watch the Suns, though, and it’s hard to doubt their ability to beat anyone. Rarely has such a precise team graced our screens, working together toward maximum benefit with a series of thoroughly considered strokes of the knife on every possession, on both ends of the court. Death by a million cuts has always been the driving philosophy of Paul’s angular, probing game, and in the Suns he has the ultimate armada of like-minded blades.
Ayton having no compunction about himself as anything but a roll man is the simplest example of this, but Devin Booker’s markedly more systematic approach has been just as important to Phoenix’s success. In one instantly memorable possession from their Game 2 win, Booker was part of an remarkably persistent 10-pass sequence that broke one of the best defensive possessions you’ll ever see, and perhaps the spirit of the Milwaukee Bucks in the process.
The Bucks, on the other end, are about as far from the Suns’ consummately well-executing approach, usually either riding waves of brilliance to extraordinary, inspiring victories or simply just coming up stupidly, mind-numbingly empty. Little is produced systematically, with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday instead being relied upon for the amazing. In Game 2, Giannis provided just that, with 42 points on 15 of 22 shooting; Holiday and Middleton, meanwhile, shot 12 for 37, combining for a meager 28.
That simply isn’t enough for the Bucks, who aren’t built to withstand sub-heroic efforts from two of their three stars. The Suns, of course, are. Mikal Bridges, whose opportunities come and go in their offense, saw his name called in Game 2, in which he scored 27 as the ball swung his way as a result of the forced rotations of the Bucks defense. In Game 3, he may not even get five shots, but this would likely have little to do with how well his team performs overall.
It’s a bad math problem for Milwaukee, though one that’s likely to get better for them when the series shifts to their homecourt this weekend. But the Bucks’ productivity will remain limited without more of a planned network for the ball, and their players, to move through. This doesn’t mean that they can’t win the Finals, just that they are less than likely to, and that if they do, it will be the result of a kind of flexing that—while extremely entertaining—probably shouldn’t need to happen.
Teams that move the ball as well as the Suns do, and are as committed to their principles as they are, even in the title winner category, are vanishingly rare. The Bucks aren't going to become one overnight, and face long odds on the front of putting together a string of games that can beat one. Paul played through 15 seasons with four different teams before landing on one that executes at this high of a level. If Phoenix keeps it up for a little bit longer, and finishes what they started, it may very well change how teams around the league envision their way toward a championship.