Hungry Jack's NBL
Grand Final Analysis: Inside Sydney and Tasmania’s Playbooks
By Liam Santamaria
For just the second time in history, the teams ranked third and fourth at the end of the regular season will face off in the NBL Grand Final Series.
Sydney versus Tasmania.
One of the most iconic brands in Australian sport up against one of the country’s most astonishing underdog stories.
Either way, history is about to be made. Either the Kings break their championship drought or the JackJumpers become the NBL’s first expansion team to win hoist the trophy in their inaugural season.
As we know, both these squads are elite defensive units. Per spatialjam.com, Sydney and Tassie each finished the regular season ranked inside the top three for defensive efficiency.
Where their styles truly contrast is at the offensive end.
The Kings, who are loaded with elite talent, like to get out and run. They push the ball, attack early in transition and, for the most part, play position-less, five-out basketball.
The JackJumpers, on the other hand, are much more methodical. This is a squad focused on playing in the half-court, where they execute a plethora of sets that often involve going deep into the shot clock.
So, what specifically do each of these teams run? With the Grand Final series just around the corner, let’s take a sneaky peek inside their playbooks.
As mentioned above, the JackJumpers are predominantly a half-court team. They like to control the tempo and a big part of that involves long offensive possessions. That said, they do have a couple of ways in which they trigger early offence.
The first is by slapping on drag screens in transition. If Tassie push the ball off a defensive rebound guys like Fabijan Krslovic, Jack McVeigh or MiKyle McIntosh will look to free up the ball-handler – usually Josh Magette – with an early on-ball screen.
The other way Tassie create early opportunities is through some transition pistol action. This is where the strong-side wing lifts up out of the corner and sets a back-screen for the ball-handler.
Magette will look to attack off these screens but if that’s not there, the Ants flow into some secondary action with a flare-screen for the back-picker and some wing pick-and-roll involving Magette.
This is a play the JJ’s run a lot as it involves a little bit of ball and player movement before flowing into mid pick-and-roll.
In this set Magette runs a loop cut and sets a back screen for the trail big. He then pops out and receives the rock before the opposite big lifts and wacks on a ball screen.
In this example, the ball-screen wasn’t required as Bryce Cotton and Vic Law got all mixed up on the back-pick and Magette popped out for a catch-and-shoot three.
A couple of extra elements to this play include rolling McVeigh into the post on a switch and flipping it back to Josh Adams late in the clock.
This is a set that the Ants flow into when one of their bigs advances the ball. It involves an early dribble hand-off on the wing and then a weakside elbow flash from the opposite big. The JackJumpers will then run some ‘blind pig’ cutting action off that big to try to catch the defence napping.
This is also one of the ways Tassie looks to create shots for Clint Steindl. When Steindl checks in, the weakside big will stay on the block and the JackJumpers run Steindl off staggered screens along the baseline.
My favourite thing about this set, though, is the wrinkle that they go to every now and then to isolate McIntosh.
After running this play a couple of times, Scott Roth will yell out ‘4 Merve’ (a call that stems from McIntosh’s middle name) which is the trigger for McIntosh to fake the hand-off and attack his man off the bounce.
Tassie will look to go at Makur Maker with this action, just like they did on this possession a few weeks ago.
Lastly, the JackJumpers have a few different looks that they go to out of a traditional ‘horns’ alignment.
Their usual action involves one big rolling/diving while the other one flares/pops. Flipping it to that guy typically flows into a second-side dribble hand-off for a scorer like Adams or Steindl.
A tug of the ear from the point guard, however, signals a slightly different wrinkle. This play starts with an elbow hit out of a horns alignment and flows into some guard-to-guard splits action on the wing. From there, Tassie will look to go at Steindl through what’s termed ‘floppy’ action. This is where your best shooter starts underneath the basket and can cut off screens on either side of the paint.
Watch here how the JackJumpers get through this action before finding Steindl for an open catch-and-shoot.
Okay, let’s not complicate this: the Kings want to get out and run.
Chase Buford’s squad was one of the league leaders in transition frequency throughout the regular season, per jordanmcnbl.com, and nothing has changed so far in the playoffs. The Kings rip it off the glass, fill the lanes and have versatile players who can attack early in the shot clock.
This, therefore, is the big question for the Grand Final series: can the JackJumpers get back and slow Sydney down? Can they contain the ball, find guys in transition and manage the various punch and drag screens the Kings set to free up their guards? If they can’t, the Kings will wipe them off the floor.
If Tassie’s defensive transition is sound, however, it will force the Kings to execute in the half-court, where they will try to generate buckets through the following types of plays.
This is Sydney’s basic ‘five out’ motion, a principle-based offence that gives players freedom to read and react.
It essentially begins with a pass to the trailing big – usually Xavier Cooks – which creates off-ball two-man games on each wing. You’ll see pin-downs, flare screens and back-cuts in these actions but the general idea is to create movement while maintaining great spacing, thus allowing guys to make plays off the bounce.
This is very similar to the ‘delay’ offence Will Weaver ran with the Kings two years ago. And like Weaver, Buford liberates his guys to read and react in these plays. The challenge for the defence is to identify what’s occurring, communicate early and navigate through it. Easier said than done.
The Kings have Jaylen Adams – the best pick-and-roll player in the league – as their primary ball-handler so they smartly set him a whole bunch of on-ball screens.
This call, ‘77’, is Sydney’s signal for double drag-screens to be set for the ball-handler, whether that be Adams, Dejan Vasiljevic or Ian Clark.
What are double drags? Well, a drag screen is an on-ball pick set by a trailing big early in a team’s offensive possession. ‘Double drags’ is when two ball-screens are set consecutively for the ball-handler, for the purpose of creating chaos and confusion amongst the D.
Interestingly, the JackJumpers have the same call for this action, as ‘77’ is a fairly common name for these kinds of screens. Of course, knowing the call and being able to stop it are two very different things.
The Kings run a fair amount of action for Dejan Vasiljevic in the half-court and this series usually involves playing off him.
In its simplest form, ‘weak’ will see Vasiljevic lifting out of the weakside corner and working off staggered screens on the perimeter. Depending on how its defended, ‘DJ’ will often use this set to become the back-screener in a Spanish pick-and-roll – popping out for a catch-and-shoot three,
Other times, Vasiljevic will take different routes off these screens to get himself open, reading the defence and reacting to how he’s being played.
Well, there you go, a little peek inside the playbooks of each of the Grand Final teams.
For both Sydney and Tasmania, now comes the difficult part; executing their stuff against each other’s lockdown D.