Facing adversity after a lopsided loss, the Utah Jazz did what they’ve done all season: regroup, make the necessary adjustments and outexecute the opponent. The Jazz stumbled out of the gate in Game 1 as the Houston Rockets’ switching defense stymied their offense. The hand-offs and motion that make up Quin Snyder’s playbook were often negated by Houston switches, and Utah’s pick-and-roll offense struggled to find any oxygen. The results were very different in Game 2, and Utah emphasized their counter from the very first possession: slipping the screen.
In Game 1, Jazz screeners were focused on making good contact with their screens. While this sounds logical—the whole point of a screen is to physically disrupt the on-ball defender—it actually hampered the offense and made it easier for the Rockets to switch ball-screens by eliminating the roll man.
Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
When a Jazz screener made contact with the on-ball defender, the equal and opposite reaction was the on-ball defender making contact with the Jazz screener. Houston’s perimeter players made sure to take advantage of this opportunity to be extra handsy and prevent the screener from rolling to the rim unimpeded (Chris Paul looks like he’s hugging a giant teddy bear on the most of these plays).
Fast-forward to Game 2 and it’s clear Coach Snyder stressed the importance of slipping those ball screens against the switch. Slipping the screen can sometimes look like a lazy act on film—more like a bad screen than a purposeful choice to slip. That wasn’t the case from Utah as the screeners made a point of sprinting out of their screens (many times they didn’t even set a screen) and punishing the Rockets for their lapses. Look at how quickly the screeners get to their rolls in the clips below compared to Game 1.
Why was this tactic so effective? To switch well, both defenders rely on contact. The on-ball defender needs to force his man to use the screen, and the screen defender needs to stay attached to the screener to prevent the ball-handler from splitting and getting into the paint. The slip removes most (or all) of the contact from the equation, making it harder for the defense to switch seamlessly without perfect reads and communication.
Donovan Mitchell didn’t shoot particularly well from the field, but he made good reads out of these plays all night long. The Jazz pick-and-roll offense looked drastically better in Game 2, and the numbers bear that out.
The Rockets were sloppy on defense for most of the night. They’ll need to communicate much better and execute with way more precision to deal with these slipped screens in Utah. The whole point of switching is to avoid putting two defenders on the ball, but Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors were so good with their slips in Game 2 that pick-and-rolls often looked like traps instead of switches. As we saw in the first round (and all season long), the Jazz will demolish you if you put two on the ball.