In the second quarter of an eventual home win over the Pacers, Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts dialed up a delicious little inbounds play to get reserve center Enes Kanter a point-blank look at the basket. The play involves very little movement and trickery, and mostly relies on two tall dudes working together to out-tall the opposition. It works in large part because it all happens so fast, before the defense sees it coming.
I have no idea whether the Blazers invented this specific play, with the lob to the free-throw line and the immediate high-low touch-pass underneath. But I do know that if you watch the Blazers play 10 or 12 times a season, there’s a very good chance you’ll see it eight or 10 times on your television. They love to ambush teams with it on baseline inbounds plays under their basket, and it works in part because the Blazers have two enormous centers who relish the opportunity to bury an unsuspecting defender under the basket. Here’s a sweet example that involves Al-Farouq Aminu diming up Jusuf Nurkić, at the expense of Nemanja Bjelica:
The essential elements are: a big fellow to pin a defender in the restricted arc; an inbounder tall and long enough to get the pass in over the top, even against an energetic defender; shooters to drag the extra defenders away from the paint; and a middle man who can go up like an NFL receiver and grab the ball up top, and then make a touch pass inside. For the most part the passers in this action aren’t especially crafty passers, but since the passes are all scripted, that doesn’t much matter. Here we have Maurice Harkless and Aminu playing the inbounder and the middle man, respectively, against the Warriors:
It’s a good play to get a cheap look from point blank range, and it’s likely to result in a foul inside even when it doesn’t produce a bucket. The Wizards used to have a similar kind of play for sideline inbounds situations, where they’d put Bradley Beal in the restricted area and align the court to run him through a set of screens in the direction of the inbounder; if his defender started off in denial position—that is, facing Beal, back to the inbounder, between Beal and the screeners—the inbounder would take the ball from the ref and instantly throw a lob pass just over the basket, where Beal, without moving in any direction, could just jump into the air and tap the ball home. It worked far more often than it ever should’ve, and it was a hoot every time. The Blazers, it turns out, are just damn good at using unexpected taps to get the ball to a huge man underneath the basket—here they are ambushing the Spurs off a jump ball:
Ambush plays like this kick butt in part because they rely on the expectation that teams will use complex movement and screening to get the ball into play—the Pacers defense tonight was set up to take away five seconds worth of sharp cuts and choreographed screens, and instead the Blazers used brute force and a funny volleyball bump to get the ball to the front of the rim in a split second. It’s the basketball equivalent of the big scary guy preparing himself for an epic sword fight, and Indiana Jones skipping ahead and just shooting him down.