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The Playbook #4: Ice Coverage

In the last playbook, to kick off our PNR coverages series we documented the well storied drop coverage. Now, we will move on to a more advanced variation of the drop, the ice coverage. The best coaches at all levels can employ this coverage to stick to one cardinal law of basketball, the No Middle rule.

Note: Sorry that there will be no plays on today, unfortunately didn't have the time. Hope you can conceptualize it anyway!

No Middle Rule Principle:

The No Middle rule basically says that forcing players to a specific side on the court is much more ideal than allowing them to attack from the middle. This makes sense: science has showed that players shoot much more efficiently from the middle of the floor, and it's easier to see a defense scrambling in the middle of the floor rather on one specific side. So, what PNR coverage can help employ this rule? Introducing the "Ice" Coverage.

Basic Ice Coverage Play:

The basic Ice tag coverage comes when the defender denies the PNR ball handler attacking the middle of the floor. This then forces the ball handler to go baseline, have to make a tough pocket pass or weak side swing, and allows the big to get into position to contain both the ball handler and the roller at the same time. The perimeter defender's job is to force the ball handler to the baseline, and chase after him to mitigate any openness of a jumper. The big's job is to make passes or short jump-shots even harder for the ball handler on one specific side on the floor. And if the roller escapes with a short roll type option, weak side taggers can also be employed. Similar to the drop, it's a tactic that baits ball handlers into taking lower percentage mid range jumpers, and may at times be even more affective. But against the best NBA ball handlers, this can prove to be flawed.

Congested Corner Ice Coverage play:

This can make ball handlers' job a lot harder when there's a congested side the defense is forcing them to. Dig steals and messiness ensues when there's more men on the pick and roll, and makes jumpers a lot more congested, forcing the ball handler to likely make the tough weak side skip pass. At the NBA level, the best ball handlers are very patient and cool in these situations, likely due to experience, but it's a tough ask for guards at the college level to run a PNR with all this traffic.

Non congested Ice Coverage Scenario:

Though the screen nav defender really has to chase the ball handler with a non populated strong side, a populated weak side makes it easier to defend pocket and swing passes since there are easy rotations to be made. In this situation, ball handlers should look to get to their spots in mid range situations.

Pop Action:

Similar to the drop, one huge counter offenses can employ against the ice coverage is a simple pop back, which can be really destructive against this PNR coverage. Forces the big to help out, and the ball handler can continue to drive to the rack with the PNR defender behind him. The ice is really suspect against teams with shooting bigs. A defensive counter we talked about in the drop coverage article was the veerback switch, but even the guard rotating back to the big shooter that late in this action could prove a bad tactic.

Off ball Pindown:

In a bit of a reversal type play, the ball handler driving to the rack quickly concedes that there's not an advantage going up against a tricky ice coverage, and then the big sets an off ball pindown/down screen type. Very good play to free up shooters and, for lighting fast drivers, allow for a driving lane straight into the teeth of the defense (the middle of the floor!), something that has to be employed against defenses that employ ices. Can also turn into a bit of a pick and roll heading towards the wing, where the big reverses and sets the screen for the ball handler, or a DHO.


Something I've seen really explosive guards employ when defenses try to ice them, like Ja, is that they have the capability to snake the screen and get back to the middle of the floor to attack the bucket. It is scary to go up against that type of guard, especially when you're giving them momentum. Simply having that level of explosiveness and a good enough handle can manipulate just about any PNR coverage, including this one.

Changing the angle of the screen to allow the ball handler to get to the middle and forcing the defense to treat it like a normal pick and roll is also effective, and allows isolation players to get into their groove. It's called the step up.

Short roll:

Guards slow down to create more time for the roller, putting the man in jail and forcing the big to make a difficult decision. The best PNR guys have mastered this effective tactic, and passing the ball through tight spaces in the PNR is one of the skills needed from ball handlers to counter the ice coverage.

Skip passes:

Could be the most advanced pass in the book from a pick and roll standpoint, something the greatest passers in the league, like Luka, LaMelo, have entrenched into their arsenal. Being able to manipulate the defense, force the weak side tagger to help out, and make the difficult pass are real skills, and if a team has THAT on the floor, then things could go well when countering the ice coverage.

Loyola Chicago:

Loyola Chicago, one of my favorite teams to analyze from a playbook perspective, have mastered the Ice. The on ball defender forces the baseline defender, the screener's defender is positioned where the ball is being forced, the off ball defender can also shrink the strong side. It forces the ball handler to throw a long weak side swing pass. In college against lower competition this can really work. They make that strong side congested, have the closeouts and rim rotations to mitigate disadvantages. Ice coverage shrinks the floor, allows them to take the player out of their usual PNR game. With no middle defenses becoming more and more popular we're seeing more teams icing ball screens more than ever.