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It's a trap: how the Cavs' pick and roll defense came up big in Game 1

In Sunday's Game 1 vs. the Detroit Pistons, the Cavaliers' pick and roll coverage was decisive part of stopping a fourth quarter run from Reggie Jackson and the Pistons.

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

In today's NBA, the pick and roll is a play set that almost every team runs in some form or another, and in the opening weekend of the playoffs, the variety was on full display. For the Cavaliers, finding effective ways to contain Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond on the pick and roll is the key to stopping one of the principal components of Stan Van Gundy's offense. And in Sunday's Game 1 with the Detroit Pistons, the Cavaliers' decision to trap or blitz the Pistons' pick and roll was a decisive part of stopping a fourth quarter run from Jackson and the Pistons.

This defensive play isn't just pertinent against the Pistons either, it's likely to be used in almost any of the Cavaliers potential playoff opponents. It's a hawkish double team of the ball handler on a pick and roll to disrupt the play and frustrate the guard, but it requires a high level of defense and speed to execute. The costs of a failed or poorly executed trap can lead to open lay-ups, a highlight that can embarrass an otherwise fine defensive player.

What's a Trap Pick and Roll?

Trap pick and rolls are a risky, but rewarding way to defend a ball screen. The basic concept is the players defending the ball handler and ball screener both jump out on the ball handler to stop the dribble and trap the player. The trouble is this leaves the screening player unguarded, typically cutting to the basket and requires a quick recovery or rotation. The play is most effective when an on-ball defender has the requisite length and size to be able to confuse and interrupt any pass, as well as a ball screen defender that has the quickness to guard the ball handler and recover back to their man. Most traps try to recover to the spot that the screener is cutting to and not the screener himself, which can lead to even worse mistakes.

Plus, this task is made even more difficult by teams like the Golden State Warriors who run an off-ball screen for the ball screener before the pick and roll set, which usually leaves the defender on the ball handler in a 2 vs. 1 like this infamous highlight from the Cavaliers and Warriors January match up:

Here, Kevin Love is "guarding" Draymond Green and goes under Klay Thompson's screen, which leaves Draymond as an unguarded ball screener for Steph Curry against Kyrie Irving. By the time Love runs out to try and trap, Curry has hit an open Draymond rolling to the basket.

The Trap Pick and Roll Against Reggie Jackson

Here are three key moments where the Cavaliers utilized a trap pick and roll in the fourth quarter against the Pistons. In the first, Tristan Thompson, guarding Aron Baynes on the ball screen falls back to the post with Richard Jefferson tracking the ball handler, Stanley Johnson, over the screen, leading to both players trapping Johnson under the basket. In a second pick and roll with Banes and Tobias Harris as the ball handler, Love and Richardson switch and Iman Shumpert rotates to the block to help Jefferson and contests his shot.

Then again, in the fourth quarter, down 84-85, a Jackson-Drummond pick and roll was blitzed by Shumpert and Love, driving Jackson to the sideline as Drummond rolled to the top of the key. Jackson managed to find Drummond as Kevin recovered to the block to set up a Jackson layup, but help from James forced Jackson to attempt a reverse, missing the shot.

And in an important defensive possession, up 96-92 in the fourth, Shumpert guards Jackson at the top of the key while Harris sets a screen. JR Smith jumps out ahead of Harris to disrupt the play with Shumpert and recovers to Harris on the perimeter as Jackson puts up a contested jump shot. A short second later a frustrated Jackson was given a technical for arguing his case to the referee.

In all three scenarios, a variation on a blitzed or trapped pick and roll forced low-efficiency shots, three key stops for the Cavaliers fourth quarter turn around. With Jefferson and Shumpert, Shumpert and Love, and Shumpert and Smith, in 1-4, 1-5, and 2-4 pick and rolls the Cavaliers tried to trap and for the most part were successful.

Why the Trap Pick and Roll Matters in the Playoffs

And now here is the key to this play. In almost any opponent the Cavaliers face on the road to a Finals, the pick and roll will be an element of the opponents attack in one way or another. Finding matchups where the Cavaliers can utilize the length of their defenders and agility of forwards like Love and Jefferson will be essential to moving forward. Boston, Toronto, Los Angeles,  Oklahoma City, and Golden State all use a pick and roll in one shape or another. Smaller ball handlers like Isaiah Thomas and Chris Paul are difficult to contain and have the ability to distribute more effectively than most players can recover to an open ball screener. The Cavaliers and many others, including the Clippers sometimes even run a double screen which can be almost impossible to cover on a blitz. Other ball screeners like Kevin Durant and Draymond Green are too lethal from distance to predict where they might roll towards. Deciding when and where Jefferson, Smith, and Love might be quick enough and able to blitz could be the difference.