Domantas Sabonis of the Indiana Pacers

Domantas Sabonis’ Screens Open up Everything for the Pacers

In “The Dark Knight”, near the end of the movie, Joker and Batman converse for the final time. Batman has stopped Joker’s social experiment (well, mostly) and opens the interchange with “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.”

The line is somewhat a reference to the irresistible force paradox, and it is considered to be just that – a paradox. There is no clear-cut answer. Well, there used to be no answer. Now, we might have one. I would like to enter into evidence this clip from Pacers-Celtics on January 9th in an attempt to solve this contradiction:

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Using NBA standards, Marcus Smart is as close as you can get to an unstoppable force on defense. On the flip side, as a screener, Domantas Sabonis is an immovable object. Literally. Smart rammed into him and was stopped dead in his tracks.

We have our answer – the immovable object was more powerful than the unstoppable force. Smart threw up a forearm into the chest of Sabonis to try and create separation, but to no avail. He wouldn’t budge. Smart spins off the pick after a half-second of wasted effort, but that was too long. Space has already been created for Victor Oladipo, who rises up and buries the shot.

The resolute Sabonis is known for his passing and rebounding. But a vasty overlooked chunk of what makes Sabonis so useful in the grand scheme of team offense is his ability to set uncompromising screens to free up seas of space for his fellow Pacers.

Some of Domantas Sabonis’ success when setting picks comes from his own masterful technique. He makes contact with a person, not with a spot on the floor like lesser screeners, to ensure he is more “locked door” than “revolving door.” His legs are wider than his torso. His knees are bent in an “athletic” stance, as my former coaches would call it. And he targets the hips of the oncoming defender to knock them off their center of gravity. All that plus his (slightly illegal) arms being bowed out from his body make him impossible to run through — or around.

He combines all of the perfect technique with a cerebral understanding of the angles and timing required to free up his teammates. All that makes him the immovable object, capable of slowing down any defender for a significant amount of time.

This picture shows it all — perfect technique down to the perfect angle. He’s positioned slightly askew from the basket so the defender has to go around him to get to his matchup instead of just being able to slide under him:

Domantas Sabonis is 9th in the entire NBA in screen assists per game at 4.1. And that is just in an average of 24.7 minutes each night. Each of the 8 guys in front of Sabonis on the screen assists leaderboard plays more minutes than he does — some substantially so. He sets more conducive-to-scoring screens than almost any player in the NBA on a per-minute basis.

Like in the Smart clip from above, a good chunk of Domantas Sabonis’ screen success comes from dribble handoff actions. These both show off his quick decision making and his ability to do another advanced screening move — changing the angle:

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Domas realized that his first screen didn’t do much, and that makes sense. It’s pretty hard to contort your body into the right position immediately after pitching the ball to your teammate. But then Sabonis sees Holiday switch his dribble hand to his left, so he switches his screen to the opposite side and slams back into Satoransky, freeing up Aaron Holiday for a bucket. It’s brilliant, and it’s more valuable than the pass itself.

When Sabonis is the roll man in the PnR, the Pacers offense generates over 1 point per possession, and the screens are a big part of why. However, they aren’t all the battle. The follow-up portion is almost as important, if not equally so. Rolling (or popping) is a necessary part of the technique.

Thankfully, Domas has also mastered the timing of rolls:

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Sabonis recognizes Ellie Okobo is going over his screen to chase Cory Joseph. The second the ball handlers defender starts going over the top of the pick, the roll will be there. One of the two defenders in the PnR is now behind the ball and basket. Domantas Sabonis has effectively turned the situation into a 2-on-1 with the proper roll timing:

Should the man guarding the ball fight over the screen, Sabonis will just execute a short roll, forcing his defender to make a decision. They can either hedge up high and cut off many of Sabonis’ options 15 feet from the rim, which increases the likelihood of giving up a layup. Or they can drop back to cut off said layup and let Sabonis take an open free throw line jumper.

Drop back too far, and you’ll get killed by Domas’ 15 footers. It isn’t a crazy efficient shot, but it’s a fine look that he creates by his own efforts:

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On these short rolls, he has figured out the footwork required to drift just far enough away from the defender to make something happen. With each shuffle of his feet, he is simultaneously scooting towards the rim and away from a defender. He’s always in a useful position should he be needed as a pass recipient or floor spacer.

The shots he gets from these short rolls in the mid-range aren’t exactly the ones you would hunt on a possession-by-possession basis, but he is an average to an above-average shooter from most midrange zones.

Don’t want to give those shots up? Option B for rim protectors guarding Domas’ sublime screens is to drift toward him when he short rolls. I personally would advise against this decision. Their names don’t flock to the brain when thinking of quick players, but all of the Pacers backcourt guys are potent speedsters with the ball. If big men instinctively flock to stopping Domas on the short roll after one of his pounding screens, some burst from an Indiana guard with underrated speed usually creates a layup.

Watch Zaza Pachulia shift his weight here to keep himself closer to Sabonis in the mid-range. That turns into points:

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Sabonis makes the right post-pick decision almost every time, seamlessly oscillating between rolls and short rolls depending on what the defense gives him. His feel is fantastic.

He can also feel when he makes a mistake, yet he can turn it into a positive. When Domantas Sabonis notices that he messed up his screen by not making contact with a defender — or he just didn’t create space for a ball handler — he reads the D in a split second. If his defender loiters in the lane and helps stop the ball-handler, Sabonis isn’t afraid to mix things up.

It’s rare, but he will pop:

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Colin Sexton was fighting like hell to not let Collison get free, and Larry Nance positioned himself in the middle of the paint so Sabonis couldn’t roll to the basket or short roll and drift effectively. Domas turned and noticed and essentially said “that’s cute” before popping out for the 3. It’s not a weapon he prefers to use or one that the Pacers coaching staff necessarily encourages, but the pop is the final trump card in Sabonis’ screen execution mastery.

Being able to read the defense and make a quick decision with the ball is what makes James Harden so good. Having the ability to decipher what is coming your way and throw an unstoppable counter at it is why he is near the front of the MVP race.

Domantas Sabonis’ similarly does this with his screens. His unstoppable counter, though, is to be an immovable object that reacts perfectly to your inability to move around him. Throw whatever coverage you want at Sabonis and co, he’s going to screen, and roll, you to death. Paradox solved.

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