Definition: A pick-and-roll defense in which the on-ball defender goes underneath both the screener and his teammate guarding the screener to meet the ball-handler on the other side of the screen.
Synonyms: Squeeze, Push Up and Under
Explanation: In today’s NBA, very few primary ball-handlers are poor shooters. In pick-and-roll, this translates to the defense generally fighting over screens, which favors the offense as it forces on-ball defenders to trail the ball-handler as he attacks the rim. Defenses reserve an under for less capable shooters, protecting the paint against a drive and giving up a jumper to the ball-handler that falls outside of his comfort zone.
These unders, however, are “under-one”: the on-ball defender slips underneath the screener but stays above his teammate who is guarding the screener. Even though the defense is more concerned with the drive in these scenarios, they do not want to give up a completely clean look from the perimeter. Usually, an on-ball defender who goes under a ball-screen can get back to the ball-handler for a late contest on a pull-up jumper.
Going “under-two” — as is sometimes unavoidable in a “show” pick-and-roll defense — tilts the defense even more toward paint protection mode. As is evident in the name, the on-ball defender goes underneath two players: the screener and the screener’s defender.
The circuitous route created by ducking under two players gives the ball-handler even more room to shoot the ball. This is why an under-two targets the league’s worst shooters, or players who are known not to shoot three-pointers at all. Poor and non-shooters, however, represent only half of the potential equation. The under-two is also utilized to neutralize good pick-and-pop shooters. When the offensive screening action involves this particular combination — a bad shooting ball-handler and a good shooting screener — the under-two is at its most necessary and effective.
This also explains why this pick-and-roll defense is relatively uncommon. With very few poor shooters running NBA offenses and only a handful of shooting bigs that can make switching their ball-screens untenable, defenses rarely face scenarios that call for this coverage.
How To Go Under-Two
Unlike any other pick-and-roll coverage, the under-two does not have the screener’s defender concern himself with the ball in any capacity. Instead, his job is to attach himself to the screener as closely as possible, essentially becoming one with the screener. This way, when the on-ball defender goes under-two, it eases his path and mirrors an under-one.
One major benefit of this technique is that it does not require any defensive rotations. In a typical pick-and-roll, the screener’s defender at least momentarily stays with the ball. This allows the screener to roll or pop freely, forcing the defense to partially or fully rotate with tags and stunts. In an under-two, however, the screener never detaches from his man, eliminating the need for any type of help.
This remains true as long as the screener’s defender stays underneath the screener while attached. Not only does this defender physically prevent a roll by placing himself between the basket and the screener, but it allows him to most easily stay close to any potential pop as well.
Here’s an example involving Andrew Harrison of the Memphis Grizzlies, against whom the Los Angeles Lakers decide to go under-two. As Marc Gasol attempts to screen Brandon Ingram, the on-ball defender, Julius Randle, Gasol’s defender, latches himself onto Gasol. As Harrison uses the ball-screen, this allows Ingram to go under-two easily.
Also take note of how Ingram is already backed off of Harrison before the ball-screen occurs. This is common for defenders guarding a player against whom an under-two is used. The Lakers do not fear Harrison’s pull-up three-point shot, so it makes sense that they would pair this type of regular on-ball defense with an under-two.
But this pairing is more than logical; it is advantageous at the point of the screen. Because Ingram is already backed off, he does not have to circle all the way around both players. Instead, he can slide more horizontally and greet Harrison farther from the rim.
Especially adept bigs in these situations will also drive into the screener to nudge him higher up the floor, as Randle does here. This pushes the ball-handler’s ball-screen usage farther away from the paint, lengthening his distance from the scoring and playmaking zone. Gasol, meanwhile, resists Randle and attempts to hold his ground. If he has enough leverage, he can even try to shove Randle in the opposite direction.
The result of this physical standoff directly impacts Ingram’s under-two path. If Gasol wins, Ingram has to dip even lower; if Randles does, Ingram’s under-two becomes more lateral, and therefore easier.
Either way, Gasol’s has nowhere to roll or pop. Randle remains connected and underneath Gasol, eliminating the need for a defensive rotation of any kind.
Ingram’s combination of effort and length are enough to challenge Harrison with a healthy contest on his three-point shot, but sometimes an under-two is not executed as cleanly as above. In many situations, the ball-handler is left with plenty of space to fire from deep uncontested. While this is an outcome the defense can live with, even bad NBA shooters can hit such wide open shots. The defense, therefore, still aims to provide some type of interference on the shot attempt.
Ideally this comes from the on-ball defender, but sometimes his under-two takes too long. If the screener’s defender is alert, he might try to disentangle from the screener and provide a contest himself.
That’s what Jae Crowder of the Cleveland Cavaliers does here as Austin Rivers of the Los Angeles Lakers comes off of a ball-screen from teammate Blake Griffin. J.R. Smith, who is guarding Rivers, actually runs into Crowder and is not able to complete his under-two in time. Crowder, who is actually the closest defender to Rivers as he begins to shoot, throws up a bothersome hand.
Weakness of the Under-Two
One of the risks of an under-one is a particularly quick ball-handler beating the on-ball defender to the other side of the screen. Even though the on-ball defender in an under-one heads to a spot lower on the floor to prevent the drive, this can become difficult as he tries to weave through the chaos of big bodies in the screening action. This is also problematic if the ball-handler is strong, as an on-ball defender who has not reestablished himself between the ball and the basket on the other side of the screen can get out-muscled by a ball-handler who has built some downhill momentum.
The under-two is even more susceptible to this disadvantage because the on-ball defender’s route makes him loop around and beneath two players as opposed to one. And because his natural route takes him even lower than an under-one, the ball-handler might even be able to dribble directly from outside his range (the three-point line) to a potential scoring area (the free-throw line or lower). Look at how deep Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers penetrates against this under-two from the Washington Wizards before he encounters any type of resistance:
Film Study: “Under-Two”
Below is a video compilation of various examples of NBA defenses using an under-two pick-and-roll coverage. Be on the lookout for the specific personnel invovled in these situations, and whether the coverage is targeted at the ball-handler, screener, or both.