Mark Blount's job was simple, at least on paper. As the Celtics and Pacers tipped off the 2004 postseason, Blount had one primary chore: Stay in front of Indiana forward Jermaine O'Neal. Rather than let O'Neal get prime position on the inside of a very weak Celtics interior defense, Boston's plan was to make it difficult for him to receive the ball by having Blount -- or whomever was assigned to O'Neal -- front him.
Nine minutes into the game, though, the Pacers were hammering passes into O'Neal anyway, and Blount was whistled for his second foul. He had to leave the game and wound up playing just 26 minutes and racking up five fouls. After the game, he explained to reporters, with a pause, "That was bad execution."
Not exactly. From the Pacers' standpoint, the execution was quite good. O'Neal wound up with 24 points despite the Celtics' efforts to limit his impact on the game by cutting down his touches. "We've been doing a better job with decision making. Especially at playoff time, it's got to be right," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle says. "Most of the game we did what we wanted."
That's because, when it comes to getting his team to do what he wants, few coaches are better than Carlisle. Where some teams, such as Dallas and Sacramento, rely on the instincts of their players, Carlisle relies -- more than any other coach -- on the predictability and execution of that little NBA gem: the play. Carlisle calls a play on nearly every possession. He is a chalkboard master, and his system depends on his players having the discipline to carry out the X's and O's he draws. It chafes players at times, such as when Pacers small forward Ron Artest called Carlisle's offense "boring," but for a guy with a career 161-85 regular-season record, the system of calling plays obviously works.
What's more is that it works in the playoffs. In a seven-game series, where teams get a level of familiarity they don't get in the regular season, the importance of designing and executing specific plays is magnified. Teams do a better, more focused job of targeting star players such as O'Neal, and it's up to the coach to counter that by calling the right play at the right time to get the ball to his best players. The Pacers managed to do it in their first-round opener against Boston -- O'Neal took 22 shots, the Pacers outscored the Celtics 48-28 in the paint and won by 16.
Early in the game, with Boston still close and the Pacers trying to figure the best way to get shots for O'Neal, Pacers guard Reggie Miller cut across the lane and screened Blount just long enough for point guard Jamaal Tinsley to drop a pass to O'Neal. With Blount out of position, O'Neal was open for a short jumper and nailed it. It was no accident, no failure of execution on Blount's part. It was simply the 5 Up Counter, one of the Pacers' go-to plays, run to perfection. It was what the Pacers do best -- they run plays.
Throughout the playoffs, go-to plays will decide which teams win series. Thanks to the help of scouts and coaches, we got an inside look at some of the most dangerous, most reliable plays that will shape this postseason. Whether it is the 5 Up Counter, the Lakers' Solo or the Pistons' Kansas Option, it's these plays that can quell an opponent's momentum, help to kick-start a struggling star or set up a game-winning shot.
The team: Lakers
The play: 1 Up (a.k.a. Solo)
The goal: Feeding O'Neal
The action: This is a play the team runs outside of its usual triangle offense, starting with Payton giving the ball to Malone and running into the left corner. Malone passes the ball to Bryant. George pops out on the right side to receive a pass from Bryant, who then cuts to the right corner. While the ball moves, O'Neal bumps from the left blocks to the right blocks and puts a shoulder into his defender in the middle of the lane to get the best possible position. George then passes to O'Neal.
The defense: Most teams that play the Lakers, including the Rockets, try to handle O'Neal straight up. It's important for the on-the-ball defender to be aware of Shaq's location. The Lakers are a bad 3-point shooting team, so give them that shot and sag to O'Neal. In this play, for example, George's defender should be about halfway between George and O'Neal to prevent the entry pass. Let George shoot. If O'Neal does get the pass, try to prevent spin moves -- make him shoot something in the 8-foot range, fading away from the basket.
Beware: O'Neal likes to call this play "Solo," and because it is his play, we'll let him. Heck, he ran this play, or something like it, with Orlando, so it belongs more to him than the Lakers.
The prospect of seeing this play repeatedly should have opponents trembling. This is a "Let's get Shaq fired up" play, and if you only see it a handful of times per game, you're doing pretty well. O'Neal gives his opponent a little shove as he crosses the box, and defenders often react to that shove and wind up getting whistled for a foul. The Lakers will go to this play 10, 12, 15 times if it is working. When O'Neal complains about not getting shots, it's because the team is not running enough Solos.
The team: Spurs
The play: Thumb Up 4 Ice
The goal: A short-range bank shot for Duncan
The action: Parker brings the ball up and settles at the top of the 3-point line, then passes to Nesterovic in the high post. Bowen cuts across the lane to the left side, and Nesterovic dumps a pass to Duncan on the right block. Nesterovic then crosses the lane, leaving Duncan alone on the right side. The Spurs run the same play, called Thumb Down 4 Ice, on the left side of the floor.
The defense: Guarding the Spurs usually requires anticipation -- interrupting what they want to do before they can do it. On this play, having the defense front Nesterovic to prevent the pass to the high post is a start. Using Duncan's defender to tie up Bowen as he cuts across can slow down the play, too. But this requires immediate recognition and execution.
Beware: The "4 Ice" part of this play should be pretty easy to translate: isolation for the 4 ... meaning the power forward ... meaning Duncan. Zone defenses have reduced the number of isolation plays NBA teams run. But the Spurs have Duncan, and when you have Duncan, you isolate him and space the floor around him. That is exactly what 4 Ice does, and that's why it is a play the Spurs use at key moments. If defensive help surrounds Duncan, either in a double-team or a zone, he can recognize the source and find the open man -- he is a great passer. The Spurs have above-average perimeter shooters, and they consistently get open looks out of isolation plays such as this one.
Of course, if Duncan is left one-on-one, he can offer up a hook shot in the lane or spin to the baseline, two of his favorite moves. Or, he can pull out the most dangerous shot in the league: the Tim Duncan 12-foot bank shot, which is impossible to defend.
The team: Pistons
The play: Kansas Option
The goal: A 3-point attempt for Billups
The action: Billups initiates the play on the right side, above the 3-point line, and passes to Hamilton, who is set up on Billups' left. Sending guards through the lane is a staple of coach Larry Brown's offense, and Billups crosses the paint with help from picks by Prince and Rasheed Wallace. Billups then curls to the left corner and takes a pass from Hamilton.
The defense: Any opponent of the Pistons must be ready to take on picks, especially that team's guards. If Billups' primary defender gets caught in a pick, a switch must be made. The best option is to have the center step out to contest Billups' shot, with Rasheed Wallace's defender sliding toward the basket to guard against an easy pass to Ben Wallace.
Beware: Don't forget that Billups was in the midst of a terrific postseason last year before an ankle injury knocked him out and killed the Pistons' chances. Billups has done a nice job of adjusting to the pass-first mentality Brown demands from point guards, but he's still a scorer and a very good 3-point shooter. The addition of Rasheed Wallace has been a huge boost, but Billups still is the go-to guy.
The Kansas Option gets Billups the ball, and with Rasheed Wallace and Prince setting screens, the defender on Billups probably won't recover in time to stop the 3-pointer. Billups also has the option of driving to the basket and drawing contact on the help defense from Ben Wallace's man. Even when he is not shooting well, Billups is one of the league's best at drawing fouls, but he prefers to take the 3-pointer when it is open.
The team: Timberwolves
The play: Turn 4, Down 1
The goal: To kill the opponent's momentum
The action: Cassell starts the play on the left side with a pass to Sprewell, who cuts from under the basket, passes to Garnett, then moves to the right corner. Meanwhile, Cassell cuts into the paint as if he will continue to the baseline but wheels back and gets a screen from Johnson just below the foul line. Cassell uses the screen, steps out and receives a pass from Garnett for an open jumper.
The defense: Be on your toes because the T-wolves run four versions of Turn 4. The first time they run it is a setup -- Garnett takes his man one-on-one, and the Timberwolves hope, later in the game, the defense will expect him to go one-on-one again. The Down 1 variation of Turn 4 gets Cassell open, Down 2 is for Sprewell, and Down 3 is for Hoiberg or Wally Szczerbiak. Turn 4 plays are Minnesota's only plays that call for Johnson in the high post. When a defense recognizes that the center is up high, the defenders on Cassell, Hoiberg and Sprewell must be on alert.
Beware: Minnesota coach Flip Saunders is crafty, and his willingness to use dupe plays early to set up something he might need later is a trademark. That's what Turn 4 plays are -- plays Saunders wants to have in his pocket to use at important moments, either when the opponent has momentum that needs to be stopped or in a crucial spot late in the game.
Cassell loves to take pressure shots, which makes the Down 1 option the most potent of the Turn 4 bunch. He has been one of the league's best fourth quarter players this season, scoring in double figures in the fourth 14 times. He slumped for most of March but has bounced back, and Saunders knows how to get him open jumpers. That's why his 3-point shooting was a career-high 39.8 percent this season. For a team looking to snap its streak of seven consecutive first-round exits, having a player with as much crunch-time postseason experience as Cassell is vital.
The team: Pacers
The play: 5 Up Counter
The goal: An open shot for O'Neal
The action: Tinsley brings the ball to the top of the 3-point line to set the play in action. He dribbles to the right side. Foster steps out to pick Tinsley's man, then steps across to pick Artest's man, allowing Artest to get out to the top of the 3-point line. Miller cuts across the lane, picking O'Neal's man, as O'Neal sets up on the right block to receive a pass from Tinsley.
The defense: Double-teaming O'Neal is a must. Though his passing has improved, it's not his strength. Bringing a double-team with the point guard is the obvious defense, but Tinsley has become a credible shooter, so leaving him open is a concern. If the center is mobile enough, it's better to use him to double-team, as long as he is certain to close the passing lane to Foster in case Foster cuts to the basket. When O'Neal is trapped, he's prone to making bad decisions.
Beware: The play is a variation on 5 Up, which the team runs for Artest when he has a mismatch at small forward -- flop Artest's and O'Neal's positions, and that is the basic setup. But 5 Up Counter sets up O'Neal in one of his favorite spots: the right low block. From there, O'Neal can take advantage of his shooting skills and post moves.
If the double-team does not come quickly, O'Neal will pop a quick jumper. If O'Neal has a slow defender on him, he will shoot off a back-to-the-basket move, and that is when he is at his most dangerous. He is as adept at hitting jumpers from the baseline as he is at getting into the lane. If a double-team comes, O'Neal will work to draw a foul or try to find an open man among Tinsley, Artest and Foster. He sometimes forces his shots, though, and his field-goal percentage has suffered because of it.
The team: Bucks
The play: 4 Strong
The goal: A 3-point attempt for Redd
The action: Jones initiates the play by dribbling to the left side, then back to the center, giving Redd time to cut across the lane. Redd gets a baseline screen, first from Smith, who steps over to the left block, then from Skinner, who positions himself near the basket. Redd curls around the screens and pops out behind the 3-point line on the right side for an open shot.
The defense: The defender on Jones should stay on Jones' right shoulder to cut off a potential pass to Redd. Jones can heat up, but in general, the defense wants him shooting rather than Redd. The defender on Redd must anticipate Redd's path in an effort to dodge one or even both of the screens.
Beware: Redd is one of the best 3-point shooters in the league, having made 40.5 percent in his career. The front line of Smith and Skinner does not strike much fear in opponents, but one thing both players do well is give up their bodies to set good, hard screens. That's what makes this play ideal for Redd -- after picks set by those two, he is sure to be free.
When the Bucks run 4 Strong, some teams elect to switch defenders. But when Redd gets a bigger, slower player on him, he is apt to put the ball on the floor and go to the hoop, either getting a layup or drawing a foul. As Redd has taken on a heavier scoring load, he has become better at getting to the rim.
Sean Deveney is a staff writer for Sporting News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org