By Adam Spinella
In thinking about the best actions NBA offenses run, the conglomerate of every screen or cut is what makes the system work. No single ball screen is enough to justify good offense; the motion before, after and away from the ball is what makes or breaks a set.
Still, there is room to dive into the details and digest each type of screen within an offense. Which teams utilize each the most effectively? Is there a pattern to when they run those screens? What makes each play so darn difficult to thwart?
A personal favorite is the flare screen, an action far more common on the collegiate level than in the pros due to the IQ of defenders. A flare screen is generally set when the ball is in the middle of the floor. A shooter, also closer to the middle, gets a screen leading him to the sideline. The screener starts on that sideline and, while setting the pick, has their back facing the corner or the side. Here’s a quick example:
The angle with which Wesley Matthews sets this screen is what gets Dirk Nowitzki open. By “pinning in” and sealing Dirk’s defender from cleanly getting to the sideline, he’s able to get a catch off cleanly:
To be effective, a flare is set on an empty side of the floor, meaning there is no offensive player in the corner to add a body to the back side.
Essentially, a flare screen is meant to target both defenders in a way they cannot defend both accurately. Take the frame above for reference, where both Portland defenders switch the screen to contest the Nowitzki shot. Any switch or help that comes from Crabbe (Matthews’ original defender) then opens up a slip to the rim for Wesley. The Cleveland Cavaliers, anticipating a switching team like the Golden State Warriors might simply swap defensive assignments when the screen comes, instructing their screeners to slip:
There’s nuance in this slip from Richard Jefferson. Not only does he know to cut to the rim, but he seals off Stephen Curry with his body so when he catches he can simply finish at the rim. Curry has no choice but to foul him.
If switching is out (and often times it is when the flare screen is set by a big man instead of a wing), the man guarding the shooter has no choice but to go over the top of the screen. Go underneath and a three-point shooter has the luxury of time to set their feet.
Even going over the top does not guarantee success, as the pressure is then on the screener’s defender to be in perfect position. He must simultaneously be ready to corral the shooter if his teammate gets hung up on a screen and prevent the screener from slipping towards the rim or the ball. It’s not an easy task by any means.
Some people may talk about turning a down screen into a flare screen, though I consider that a different action altogether. That would occur when a down screen is set and the man defending the shooter tries to go underneath the screen, anticipating an avenue where he can cut the angle and get into defensive position. An adept scorer will notice the defender doing this and fade to the corner, making for a longer pass but more space for the shooter. Watch as Ray Allen makes the adjustment for the Celtics and pops to the wing instead of to the top of the key:
To me, this is not a flare screen. This is a read made by the scorer to fade off the screen instead of curling or cutting straight off it. Fading can occur when a player comes off a down screen. Flare screens are ones where the man receiving the screen starts the possession farther away from the basket than the screener.
There’s also a huge emphasis on footwork and precision from the passer in making a flare screen successful. Starting with the shooter, flare screens naturally lead him away from the basket with momentum carrying them towards the sideline. Shooters are taught to get away from the screen and towards the sideline, but their last step must be toward the basket to offset that momentum and get their body gathered towards the hoop. Likewise, a passer must throw a pass with some zip on it over-the-top of the screen so it gets to the shooter before the defense can recover over the screen.
Now that we’ve defined the parameters for what is and isn’t a flare screen and its proper defensive rotations, it’s easier to appreciate the better utilized flares throughout the league.
Portland Trail Blazers
Some coaches, even in the NBA, will run them continuously, betting enough flares run for shooters will guarantee a few open shots per game. Chief among those believers is Terry Stotts, head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, who run a variation of a down screen/flare screen motion offense generally known as Blocker-Mover. The Blazers essentially split the court in half, where one side does down screens (lower and toward the baseline) and the other does flares (usually set on the wing).
Watch any Blazers game from the last few seasons and this circular, wheel-like movement is common throughout the game. Stotts is absolutely right that the sheer volume of flare screens will get shots for his stars eventually. But the emphasis is also on what defending the constant flares for elite three-point shooters does to the rest of the defense. Defending a sideline-leading screen so tightly opens up driving lanes to the middle of the court or counter-plays that are difficult to thwart. One simple way to change a flare screen and further punish an indecisive help defender: curl all the way around the flare to the basket, using it as a wide back screen.
There’s a multitude of actions the Blazers run out of this set to counter opponents who start to jump one way or another. the important thing to note is ultimately this offense gives players a ton of freedom to read-and-react within the skeleton of the offense. At the end of the day, a 24-second shot clock doesn’t allow for several flares to be set on the same possession, so the shooters only get open a couple times per game, which makes the counters and tricks up Stotts’ sleeves all the more important.
So much credit has been given to Nikola Jokic for his unique offensive skills that head coach Michael Malone hasn’t received his due. Malone has some great offensive designs that capitalize on the newfound motion he installed around Jokic as a passer. Nikola thrives at the top of the key, where he can pick apart opponents while four guards or wings cut and screen around him. Dribble handoffs, backdoor passes, you name it, Jokic does it.
As a result, defenders have stuck to Jokic like glue no matter where he is on the court, fearing an elbow touch for the dynamic Serbian. Capitalizing on defenses that zero-in on Jokic and give limited help off him, Malone has him set a flare out of a misdirection set:
The three-man action kills Portland here because of the speed with which it’s run. C.J. McCollum has no chance to change directions and get over the screen to contest, while Noah Vonleh is far too low to do anything to help on the play. The Nuggets on the opposite side are standing in the corner with the intent of clearing out as much room as possible for Jokic to slip. Since he’s such a dangerous threat, Vonleh doesn’t bite and the shooter is open off the flare.
As if flare screens weren’t difficult enough to defend, Brad Stevens decided to create a screen-the-screener action. Stevens instructs the Celtics to hit the elbow and, by shrinking the floor with the ball at 15 feet from the hoop, there is more room for the screener to be a threat to pop out and shoot. Still, this set is devastating because of the sheer chaos involved in guarding the man coming off the flare.
Everyone watches the ball at the elbow and anticipates a handoff to the point guard. That action is simply a decoy, as the flare on the opposite side is what the Celtics are going for. An unsuspecting defender, watching the ball and ready to chip in and help on the dribble handoff, is suddenly vaulted into defending a dangerous flare action for a shooter. Defenders who figure that out during the flight of the ball are already beaten.
Stevens has several flare sets, all of which are lethal with the precise timing they require. He will run a lot of them in the team’s early offense, especially for Isaiah Thomas:
These quick ones the Celtics run are prime territory for slips to the rim. Stevens instructs his Celts to set these flares fully, but the speed in which they are set open the doors for the offensive players to split the action and get layups at the rim. The more attention paid to an elite shooter (like Thomas) on a simple, fairly obvious-to-see screening action, the more open the slip may become.
Stevens has perhaps the most brilliant counter for any flare set I’ve seen, using the face-guarded player to set the flare screen. Isaiah is frequently given star treatment on offense, not allowed to catch the ball as a defender tries to shadow his every move. How do the Celtics get open shots? Use Isaiah as a screener in the flare, seeking out contact and getting a teammate open for three.
The angle with which Thomas screens helps get Jae Crowder open here. Instead of screening the middle of Kyle Korver’s body, Thomas seeks out his top side, which forces Korver to go underneath. Knowing there’s no help from Dennis Schroder, who is busy being chest-to-chest with Isaiah, Thomas can chip that top-side knowing there will be no help from behind as Crowder gets space and time to shoot.