“Ice”

Term: Ice

Definition: A pick-and-roll defense in which the on-ball defender forces the ball-handler to reject the ball-screen.

Synonyms: Blue, Push, Down

(Note: many parts of the “Ice” pick-and-roll coverage coincide with the rules for a “Drop.” Please read Drop Part I and Part II before diving into the “Ice” explanation, as overlapping parts will not be explained as deeply.)

Explanation: In a typical “Drop” pick-and-roll coverage, the defense somewhat concedes the middle of the floor to the offense. Although this violates the “no middle” principle organizing most NBA defenses, the quickly evolving nature of many ball-screens forces this concession to prevent larger defensive gaps.

“Icing” a pick-and-roll — one of the most popular coverage calls in the league today — is essentially the pick-and-roll component of a “no-middle” defense that most teams strive for. Instead of driving a ball-handler into a ball-screen as dictated by a typical drop, an “ice” coverage denies him middle by making him reject it.

The main benefit of this tactic is its ability to keep the ball-handler out of the most dangerous decision-making zone: the paint. If a ball-handler gets into this area, most of his teammates are passing options in his attempt to pick apart the defense. If he is instead pushed to the sideline by an ice, his options are essentially limited to himself and the roller or popper. Everyone else is stuck on the weak side of the floor and far away from the main action.

Most ice coverages are used in the outer thirds of the floor — from the slot to the nearest sideline. This is where it is easiest to funnel the ball. Not only has the ball-handler already declared a side by initiating his ball-screen on the left or right wing, but he has also provided the defense with a sixth defender — the sideline. This cuts off the maneuverability of the ball-handler and can keep him within a confined area.

If the defense ices a pick-and-roll in the middle third, the ball-handler is not restricted by the natural out-of-bounds barrier. And even with the defense successfully forcing a screen rejection, the ball-handler is still near the middle of the floor after he navigates an iced ball-screen that begins between the slots. This defeats the entire purpose of the ice, rendering the extra effort required by the coverage worthless. Therefore, without a tangible benefit, defenses will typically use the more easily executeable drop coverage in the middle.

Responsibilities of the On-Ball Defender

One of the advantages of a drop coverage is its natural application. A ball-handler wants to use a ball-screen, and the drop does nothing to discourage this outcome. Icing a ball-screen, however, pushes the ball-handler away from his first instinct. This process necessarily requires an extra defensive manuever.

The on-ball defender’s ability to force this screen rejection is the difference between success and failure, because allowing the ball-handler to get over the screen dismantles the coverage before it begins. In terms of the how, the drop and the ice begin from the same starting point: get into the ball. Without ball pressure, a ball-handler can choose the direction of his dribble. Given that every pick-and-roll defense relies on the on-ball defender guiding the ball-handler toward a predetermined side, any lapse in execution will result in the help defense being out of position.

There is, however, one crucial difference between the way in which the on-ball defender pressures the ball in a drop versus an ice. Instead of influencing the ball into the ball-screen — and therefore pushing it where it already wants to go — an icing on-ball defender must completely cut off the middle.

In practical terms, this means an icing on-ball defender will flip his body perpendicular to the ball-handler with his back to the screener. This can be a difficult proposition to execute quickly, especially considering most defenders start positioned normally — facing the ball directly. In so doing, he signals to the ball-handler that there is only one option: dribble away from the screen and toward the sideline. In a drop, the on-ball defender can rely on the instincts of the ball-handler to use the screen; in an ice, he must make the choice for the ball-handler himself.

Some defenders will even hop above the ball-handler — that is, closer to the half-court line — to cut off a looping path around a ball-screen. While this might disadvantage him in terms of getting back in front of the ball, smarter defenders will do it momentarily until the ball-handler commits to the screen rejection. Once the defender sees him lean this way, he immediately starts his scramble to get ball-side — between the ball and the basket.

Here’s a good on-ball ice by Juwan Evans of the Los Angeles Clippers, who pushes Patrick McCaw of the Golden State Warriors away from teammate Javale McGee’s ball-screen. Look at how Evans keeps the screen on his back while pressuring the ball to limit McCaw’s choices. The path McCaw would have to take to get around the McGee screen would be roundabout and cumbersome, and Evans could easily slide with him to cut it off. The other option, of course, is to take the space toward the sideline and reject the screen — exactly what Evans wants.

Left with no alternative, McCaw attacks the space toward the sideline, staying out of the middle of the floor. Evans, who is further advantaged now that he does not have to fight through the contact of the screen, can easily stay with McCaw as he makes his move. This is the other benefit of the ice: on-ball defenders have a much easier time getting back in front of the ball. Whereas on-ball defenders in a drop are often stuck in rearview pursuit — chasing completely from behind to get back between the ball and the rim — icers can somewhat maintain ball-side positioning throughout the entire coverage.

Of course, every pick-and-roll has its own unique dynamics to which the on-ball defender must adapt. In the play above, the slowly developing pick-and-roll leaves Evans with plenty of time to get into the ball before the ball-screen starts.

This isn’t always the case. Sometimes, the coverage call is late or the play unfolds quickly — both of which give the on-ball defender little time to react. If he’s not already pressuring the ball, it can be difficult to apply pressure and shift his positioning toward the sideline. Because the entire ice coverage relies on a screen rejection by the ball-handler, defenders will often choose the latter over the former if both cannot be accomplished together. Although the lack of body contact does give the ball-handler some wiggle room to use a quick crossover and head middle, over-compensation by the on-ball defender — that is, jumping well above the ball-handler as mentioned earlier — can keep the ball on the sideline equally well. The only downside, however, is that the on-ball defender is left following the ball from a fair distance behind.

The Icing Big

In a typical drop, the big keeps both the ball and the roller in front to buy time for the rearview pursuer to get back in front. The same principles apply during an ice, but with the added advantage of the on-ball defender not necessarily rearview pursuing. This means the icing big does not have to stay with the ball as long, because the on-ball defender can get out of his ice and back into a guarding position more quickly.

In terms of his positioning, there is no set rule for the depth to which the icing big drops. While his starting point is always at or below the level of the screen and directly between the ball and the basket — again, similar to the drop —a difference in starting depth does not create quite the same level of rotational dynamics as does the difference between the aggressive and deep drop. Whereas an aggressive dropper might need to be up at the level of the screen to prevent a great shooter from firing a pull-up three-pointer, this possibility is somewhat negated by the ice. The on-ball defender remains connected throughout, and there is typically no room to shoot.

What ends up happening is bigs tend to begin their ice proportional to the level of their athleticism. Nimble bigs will pressure the ball more thoroughly, while slow-footed bigs tend to hang back near the paint. Either way, the only real rule is that they start on the correct side of the screen to anticipate the rejection. But even this is flexible, as an icing big is usually moving from the middle of the floor out to the sideline. Even if he’s not in the right position as he makes the coverage call, he will likely get there by the time the play begins.

One other point here is that the icing big can primarily maintain his eye on the ball. Although the stopping the ball is the obvious first step in pick-and-roll defense, the ice, unlike the drop, naturally shrinks the window for a pocket pass. In a drop, the ball-handler and roller often head downhill unimpeded. The dropper, therefore, has to keep both the ball and the roller in front in an effort to buy time for the recovery of his rearview pursuing teammate, who is likely chasing from behind. In an ice, the on-ball defender’s lack of rearview pursuit positions him alongside of the ball instead of behind it, and therefore in the window of a potential pocket pass. If he keeps his outside arm (the arm closest to the baseline) extended, he can neutralize the rim-roll option — and the icing big can focus his attention completely on the ball. Consequently, the icing big does not have to hold onto his drop as long and can more readily recover back to the screener. In short, the lack of rearview pursuit greatly reduces the responsibilities of the icing big.

This defensive sequence by the Charlotte Hornets shows how a proper ice can really cut off rolls to the rim on side pick-and-rolls. As Michael Kidd-Gilchrist forces Jeff Teague of the Minnesota Timberwolves down to the corner, Taj Gibson “short rolls” — he cuts off his roll instead of rumbling full speed ahead to the rim. The reason he does this is because for Teague, there’s just no open window through which he can a sneak a pocket pass. If Gibson were to follow the path outlined by the Green arrow, would Teague be able to find him?

The most likely answer is no, which is why Gibson shortens his roll. With Teague stuck in the corner, Gibson needs to make himself a available. The way in which the mechanics of an ice encourage this type of short roll or flat-out pop display another one of its advantages: the defense has one less offensive component to manage.

The Tagger

Before we dive into the tagger, let’s recall the following discussion of the tagger’s defensive role from “Drop,” Part I:

The purpose of the tag is to slow down the roller. In a typical pick-and-roll, the ball-handler is already turning the corner and the roller is playing catchup to get back into the play. This is another reason why you’ll sometimes see guards slow down right as they get around the screen — they are giving their big time to release from the contact of the screen and move into a viable passing lane. NBA defenses, however, don’t want this to happen as it exerts extra pressure on the dropper. So they place their tagger momentarily in the path of the roller, which subsequently slows him down, buys the rearview pursuer time to get back in front, and allows the dropper to focus more directly on the ball.

In an ice, the tagger serves the same overall purpose of slowing down a roller. But with rim-rolls few and far between against ices, the tagger can more easily anticipate the area to which a screener will flow after he releases from his pick. Instead of handling everything from a tag deep in the paint to a stunt out at the three-point line, the tagger knows that the screener will likely end up somewhere between the three-point line and elbow. With this knowledge in hand, he can more easily pre-rotate into a proper help position.

Given that a rim-roller is not as dangerous a threat in iced side pick-and-rolls, tagging the roller is not always even necessary. Unlike the drop, which often requires this third man to help out on the roll, an ice can swallow up a pick-and-roll with two players — as Charlotte did above.

In terms of who the tagger is, drop tagging rules still apply:

If the ball-screen is moving away from you and you are the closest perimeter defender, you are the tagger. Or, to connect it to a previous analysis of off-ball pick-and-roll movement, you are the tagger if you are guarding the shaker.

In a typical drop, the tagger is usually guarding the strong-side corner shooter. In an ice, he is usually guarding the player at the top of the key or opposite slot. This seemingly minor difference actually has large consequences in terms of personnel, because most teams stick wing players in the corners and lift their shooting bigs on the slots. In a practical sense, this means that x4 (the man guarding the 4) might be the tagger in an ice. Whereas every NBA wing has drilled tagging technique in training camp or practice, the same cannot be said for bigs. This can apply uncomfortable pressure on a defense by placing a player in an unfamiliar position.

Let’s look at a tagging example to see how this works. As Domantas Sabonis of the Indiana Pacers runs a side ball-screen with teammate Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams of the Oklahoma City Thunder shift into an ice coverage. The call here is a little late, which becomes clear once Westbrook lunges up above Collison to send him baseline.

This gives Collison some room to work with, which in turn fully commits Adams to the ball. As Collison drags the screen out further toward the baseline and Westbrook chases to get back in the play, a pocket pass window opens. This is where Andre Roberson of the Thunder comes in, as the nearest perimeter player for whom the screen is going away. He sinks in to tag Sabonis and deny the pocket pass. Even though he doesn’t actually make contact with Sabonis, his presence is enough to deter the pass. This is often what a tag is — being in the right spot and occupying the ball-handler’s vision to force his eyes elsewhere.

With nowhere to go, Collison opts for the tough pull-up two. The defense wins the possession.

Although the ice ideally eliminates the need for a tag, not all ice coverages are perfect. Sometimes the tagger needs to be there to bail out his teammates, as Roberson does above. It’s why the mechanism is built in: just in case.

Pre-Screen Verbiage

As a refresher, here are the pre-screen verbiage requirements for a drop:

Before the screen arrives, it is the responsibility of the defender guarding the screener to be early, loud and continous with his coverage call. If he’s early with the call, his on-ball teammate has time to react. If he’s loud, his teammate can actually hear the call — NBA fans make serious noise, and sometimes it takes an especially strong voice to break through the crowd. If he’s continuous, it guarantees his teammate will hear it one of the times it is yelled.

This early, loud and continuous notion also applies to an ice, but with a particular emphasis on the “early.” In a drop, the defense pushes the ball-handler into the screen, and therefore middle. This is often a team’s default coverage because not only does it not require extra effort for the guard, it also guides the ball toward the spot where the defensive big is already waiting. Even if the call is a bit late, both are predisposed to be in the right position anyway.

In an ice, the on-ball defender has to shift his body and the screener’s man has to move closer to the sideline. The icing big generally does not call for the ice unless he is already in position or knows he can get there. But unlike a drop, his call must also take into consideration his on-ball teammate and the time it takes for his body shift. If the call is late, he opens up the defense to misalignment — with the big on the sideline expecting the ball, and the on-ball guard unable to send it there.

Take a look at the following play involving the Milwaukee Bucks, as John Henson tries to ice a drag by Aron Baynes of the Boston Celtics. Because he does not give teammate Eric Bledsoe nearly enough time to twist himself around, Henson is left sprinting toward the sideline in an ice while Kyrie Irving easily gets middle around the Baynes screen. Now out of position, Henson can only foul Irving for an and-one as he streaks in for a layup.

Equally important is that the guard doesn’t make the coverage call. The perimeter player facing the opposite basket cannot see behind, and therefore does not know if his teammate is in position to ice. Look at how Andre Roberson of the Oklahoma City Thunder opens the gate here readying for an ice, but no teammate is there to complete the coverage. The result is an easy two points for the San Antonio Spurs.

Ice vs. Step-Up

Not all side pick-and-rolls aim to spring the ball-handler free toward the middle. If the offense sets a step-up, for instance, the ball-handler can scoot along the sideline with a head of steam. In these scenarios, the defense has already called its coverage before the screen itself happens. Therefore, they are not going to abort their coverage once they notice that the angle of the screen has changed.

The ice adapts to the step-up by following its normal principles, but the on-ball defender’s job gets slightly harder. Instead of sticking the screen on his back and avoiding contact, he will likely get hit and fall into a trail position. Although the coverage is still an ice, it essentially morphs into a drop. The on-ball defender must now rearview pursue, and the icing big must (if necessary based on personnel) take away the pull-up jumper. The on-ball defender is no longer crowding the space of the ball-handler throughout the pick-and-roll.

That’s what happens to Brandon Paul of the Spurs when he gets clipped by a screen from Jerami Grant of the Thunder. Paul George attacks the rim one-on-one against the icing (and now dropping) Davis Bertans, and Grant rolls free to the rim. The distance between Paul and Bertans (created by the contact on the screen) means the pocket pass window is open, and Patty Mills must be there to tag.

This is the advantage of setting step-ups against ices: it turns the tables back in favor of the offense, and the defense must treat it like a regular pick-and-roll. Instead of being able to dictate to the offense by sending the ball to the corner, they become reactive.

Ice To Trap

There is one scenario in which the defense can attack a step-up and regain the advantage. The natural arc of the three-point line takes an abrut turn at the break — the point at which it shifts from a curve to a straight line on either wing. With offenses operating around the three-point line, ball-handlers subconsciously follow this line as a guide. Smart defenses can leverage this tendency by springing a ball-screen trap on screens set near this area.

This also works as a general rule for any ball-screen set too close to the sideline, and it is why coaches implore their point guards to bring the ball closer to the middle of the floor before signaling for a pick-and-roll.

Ice vs. Strong-Side Corner Fill

We have already established that defenses primarily ice side ball-screens to keep ball-handlers out of the middle. But its other main benefit, as described in various places above, is its situational advantage over the drop.

When the strong-side corner is filled, an ice can turn a properly spaced offense into a crowded mess. Even though the Detroit Pistons are properly spaced on this side ball-screen off the right wing, the Philadelphia 76ers’ quick ice pushes ball-handler Ish Smith into a trio of bodies: Ben Simmons ready to stunt off Anthony Tolliver in the strong-side corner, Amir Johnson as the icing big, and T.J. McConnell as the icing guard. Where is Smith supposed to go?

Ice vs. Empty Corner

Against an empty corner, the ice turns a negative into a positive. Remember that, when a defenses drops against an empty corner side pick-and-roll, both a roll and a pop present an unfavorable siutation because there is no natural tagger to help out the dropping big. Against a roll, he is left to guard the two-on-one by himself. Against a pop, he gets dragged near the basket before having to sprint back out to the three-point line due to the lack of a stunter.

Not only does the ice eliminate this dilemma, but it actually creates a huge defensive advantage. In a regular ice, the two icing defenders use the sideline as an extra defender. When the strong-side corner is empty, the baseline comes into play as well. If the icers align themselves properly, they can box the ball-handler into the corner with no way out.

That’s what Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes of the Boston Celtics do here to Shelvin Mack of the Orlando Magic. As Bismack Biyombo comes to set a ball-screen in the corner, Baynes’ early call for an ice gives Smart time to rotate his body. But instead of getting perpendicular to the ball to send it down, he takes a step above Mack and angles toward the corner.

Smart is not worried about Mack driving further down into the corner. Any dribble attack will head to the rim, and therefore parallel instead of perpendicular to the baseline. This means Smart does not need his back to face the opposite sideline, and he can overcompensate on his directional push of Mack without consequence. In short, he gets the best of both worlds: the empty corner allows him both to cut off Mack’s use of the Biyombo screen and to remain in position to get back in front.

Ice vs. Pick-and-Pop

Instead of wading into that short roll area around the elbow, many screen-setting bigs will pop into space when the defense ices a pick-and-roll. This provides the clearest possible outlet pass, and with a particularly skilled ball-handler, it can lead to an open three-point shot.

The defense deals with a pick-and-pop when in an ice in the same way as it handles a pick-and-pop against a drop:

Instead of tagging the roller, defenses “stunt” to the popper — a delaying tactic in which the helper closest to the popper briefly jumps toward him before returning to his original man. If there are multiple players on the stunter’s side of the floor, a second defender will stunt for the stunter as a backup.

The potential stunter and tagger are the same person, but the job is made easier in an ice with the screener’s potential path usually limited to the eight-foot area between the elbow and three-point line. This allows the stunter to pre-rotate more easily, as he has a greater chance of planting himself nearer to the expected popping area. When the ball-handler looks to throw the ball back to his popping big, he will see a defender near his passing lane.

Against especially dangerous shooting bigs, stunters will stunt to a touch — meaning they jump all the way to the popper to the point of contact. This is just a further throwback deterrence for the ball-handler, as he’s more likley to see the stunter if he’s momentarily connected to the popper. But against non-shooters, the stunt might be shortened or even completely non-existent.

In a regular drop, the rearview pursuer fights to get back in front while also readying his hands for a throwback. By sticking them in the air, he can force this throwback to the popper to be a high, looping pass, or cause the ball-handler to use a reverse pivot to avoid a deflection. Either way, the pursuer buys time for his dropper to recover back to the popper. This, in combination with the stunt, makes the pick-and-pop more difficult to complete.

But high hands in particular are a greater point of advantage in an ice. Assuming that the screening big will short roll or pop, the defense does not necessarily need to worry about the pocket pass. With this information in hand, the on-ball defender can safely assume that a throwback is coming should the ball-handler look to make a pass. Therefore, he can more decisively commit himself to angling his pursuit of the ball between the ball-handler and the popper, with high hands serving as a direct blockade of the throwback.

On the play below, look at how Shabazz Muhammad and Tyus Jones of the Minnesota Timberwolves combine high hands with an anticipated stunt to prevent this LaMarcus Aldridge pick-and-pop jumper. As Patty Mills of the Spurs dribbles baseline and looks to throw it back to his teammate, Aldridge, Jones sticks a hand in the air to make the pass more difficult. Mills, in an effort to bend his pass around the pressure, is force to take a little zip off of it. Meanwhile, Shabazz Muhammad uses this extra time to creep over into a better stunting position.

All of this buys time for Karl-Anthony Towns to recover back to Aldridge, and evne prevents Aldridge from firing a jumper in the first place. The slowed down pass gives Muhammad just enough time to arrive at Aldridge on the catch, and Aldridge chooses to pump fake due to the durress. This additional hesitation buys even more time for Towns’ recovery. Although Minnesota is not able to finish the play, the defensive ice and stunt execution are solid.

The particulars of some pick-and-pops, however, don’t always allow for this type of help and recovery. The icing big can get so caught up handling the ball that his recovery back out to the popper is way too far. Or, the stunt might be so long that the stunter decides it is better for him to stay put — especially if he considers the man he’s guarding a more dangerous shooter than the popper. In this case, it might be smarter for the defense to late-switch — that is, have the on-ball defender pivot out of his ball recovery and head toward the popper. This is more of a read-and-react situation, which Shane Larkin and Semi Ojeleye of the Boston Celtics execute here when Kritaps Porzingis pick-and-pops.

There is one other switch scenario to consider. On occasion, the ball-handler against an ice will use his speed to sneak against the baseline and underneath the basket. Usually at a serious height disadvantage against the icing big, he does not have an angle for a finish at the rim. Instead, he will keep his dribble alive and force the big and recovering on-ball defender to chase him across the floor and out to the other side with the hope of a shooter or cutter springing free. (Steve Nash used to do this often.) Defenses naturally do not want two players following the ball for such an extended period of time, and will instead switch once it gets to this point. This of course is only a band-aid, and is exactly what Chris Paul of the Houston Rockets counts on when he does just that below. Once he gets the switch, he capitalizes on the mismatch.


Film Study: “Ice”

Below is a video compilation of various examples of NBA defenses in an ice pick-and-roll coverage, including all of the scenarios and techniques presented above. Although the specific play type and associated technique is labeled in the video, pay close attention to the quality of execution in every situation, and whether or not the chosen coverage is even the right one for the particular play.

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