There have been better players.
But not a better play.Using a simple strategy hatched just after the first peach basket was hung last century and still being run today in pickup games at YMCAs across the country, Utah Jazz teammates John Stockton and Karl Malone have pick-and-rolled their way into an eventual spot in the NBA Hall of Fame, the record books and their second consecutive NBA Finals.
As deadly efficient as Kareem's skyhook, Jordan's fadeaway and Wilt's dipper, Stockton-to-Malone is one of the most sound, synchronized scoring methods in basketball history.
"They've run it on me a thousand times and I finally came up with a way to stop it," Lakers guard Nick Van Exel said. "Bring a bat to the game and kill one of them."
Or, as the Chicago Bulls have done successfully through two games of this Finals, attack the attackers and hope the open shots the pick-and-roll is sure to bring don't fall.
"I think we've played it about as well as we can," Bulls forward Scottie Pippen said. "But they're still getting Karl that 15-foot jumper. So far, we've just been lucky he isn't hitting. But, really, there's not a lot you can do against it."
How the Bulls and their Doberman defense of perennial all-defensive team members Pippen, Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman contain the pick-and-roll is a key to pivotal Game 3 on Sunday at the United Center and for the rest of the series.
In Game 1, the Jazz ran the two-man play 25 times for 41 points, including springing Stockton for the game-clinching layup in the final minute. In Game 2, however, the Bulls forced Stockton to the baseline and tried to trap him. The ploy jostled the Jazz from its usual patience, limiting them to 14 plays for 17 points.
"They've given us different looks and had some success forcing us out of what we want to do," Stockton said. "But . . . we can run it a lot smoother and better than we have."
The mysteries of the pick-and-roll are twofold. Did Stockton-to-Malone create the play or vice versa? And why is something so simple so difficult to stop?
Stockton, the NBA all-time leader in assists and perhaps its best 36-year-old point guard ever, runs the pick-and-roll from two spots - the top of the key and the wing - and usually from the right side of the court. As Stockton dribbles in place, Malone moves his 6-foot-9, 260-pound body into the side of his defender. At that point, the Jazz lets the defense dictate the play.
"When Karl started making that 15-foot jumper, it became a really tough play," Stockton said. "Everyone already knew he could take it to the hole strong. But now he's just as deadly from the outside."
Said Malone: "We have 11 options off just the action of me setting the pick. That's the beauty of it. For every adjustment defenses make, we have an option that's already worked against it a thousand times."
The most common move is Stock-ton dribbling to his right with his defender "picked" by Malone. If Malone's defender switches to guard Stockton, Malone simply "rolls" to the basket against Stockton's much smaller defender for a layup. If Malone's defender doesn't help, Stockton is left with an open jumper. Sometimes Stockton will take advantage of the switch defense by using his quickness to drive past Malone's bigger defender. Sometimes Malone will flare instead of roll, giving him a 15- to 18-foot jumper. And sometimes Malone will fake the screen and "slip" to the basket for a layup while the defenders are preparing for his monstrous body contact.
"It's been around so long because it works," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, who simply yells "run it" when he wants a pick-and-roll. "But these guys have taken it to another level. Every team runs some form of pick-and-roll, but nobody as good as them."
The Bulls have chosen to let Stockton dribble off the pick, forced him toward the baseline and brought Pippen for a double-team trap. The move has often left Malone with open jumpers, but the Mailman has been way off his route. In the Finals, he has missed 22 of 26 shots outside 12 feet.
"I can't ever remember having three bad games in a row, so I think I'll be OK," said Malone, the NBA's fourth all-time leading scorer and the player who redefined the power forward position. "People say he's settling for the outside shot," Sloan said. "But it's the same shot he's made a pretty good living on."