A write-up on what was a particularly long “week” with two 4-day breaks in between…
Aggressive Help vs. Chicago
Following a break during which we reportedly paid more attention to sending extra help on defense in practice, our defense did indeed look a bit amped up. We did look solid and gave Chicago a run for its money, but these adjustments seemingly hurt us more than helped us as the Bulls found cracks in our defense en route to a game where they posted an offensive rating of 103.8 (a defensive rating that would have us ranked as the 16th best defense).
You could see the emphasis put on post defense which was both heavily mentioned in Rick Bonnell’s article and then questioned by me in last week’s blog. Not only Marvin Williams was prepared to front opposing post players, but it could also happen in instances where Gerald Henderson guarded Jimmy Butler:
Note how low Al Jefferson is to crowd the possible area of an inside pass, despite the fact that Pau Gasol should be guarded up to the three-point line. This strategy had its share of breakdowns with Gasol scoring despite the fronting defense and extra help of Jefferson:
The severeness of Jefferson’s help-defense on the second play reminds me of how the two Wallaces guarded Shaquille O’Neal in the 2004 Finals:
Another aspect concerning post defense and mentioned in Bonnell’s article was digging at the post player. Gerald Henderson had expressed how that’s also a part of our defense that requires more effort. Well, Clifford actively and loudly suggesting his guys to dig has been a trend which we’ve seen whole season long. Our wing defenders usually are adept at this task, an aggressive advance towards the post player with a swift return to their own assignment immediately afterward. Kemba Walker, prone to off-ball defensive mistakes, seemed to get a bit carried away when digging against Chicago:
Mistakes like these make me believe that either our players reacted with some extra (sometimes unwarranted) effort against Chicago or that we specifically prepared to be more active against the Bulls than the rather mediocre Boston and New York offenses. Here’s Kemba overly paying attention to the post where it wasn’t really his place to do so:
Our pick-n-roll and pick-n-pop coverage, an aspect of our defense that I’ve criticized and covered plenty of in previous weeks, also had some irregularities. With us regularly giving up open jumpers for screeners of these pick-n-roll actions, you could sense that Marvin Williams had the screener on his mind and was ready to return back to him after dropping back to at least somewhat contain the ball handler. Here, right after the screen-and-roll, he even disregards the fact that he’s leaving Derrick Rose a wide open lane to the basket (with Al Jefferson unable to help off Pau Gasol, a great big man shooter) in his pursuit of staying close to Joakim Noah, a rather average shooter:
Meanwhile, Lance Stephenson got caught being too active in the role of the third defender who’s coming over to crowd the area of the pick-n-roll. As I’ve previously written, Clifford’s Hornets are a rather conservative defensive team which at most will have a player stunt at the screener (an action where you fake help and immediately return to your man). We aren’t as aggressive as, let’s say, the Milwaukee Bucks, beautifully covered by Zach Lowe in a recent column. Thus it’s hard to say whether this is just Lance being Lance or did he have actual orders to help on the screener:
At this point Lance is so committed to the play that there’s no going back and unfortunately Henderson wasn’t ready to rotate to his man:
His complete commitment to help on the screener does come the moment the ball handler leaps for the pass so, perhaps, it was indeed by design. Either way his gamble failed. The third play in the video though definitely is Lance working as a freelance artist.
All in all, it was an interesting game to watch as far as our defense is concerned. The way we used Al to help the power forward who’s fronting an opponent was definitely something new, but I honestly don’t feel like I can conclude what was the definite cause for the other highlighted mistakes without the ability of asking the coaching staff such questions. Perhaps, it wasn’t even us being more prepared after four days of practice or us planning ahead for Chicago. The Bulls might have simply caught us on certain possessions where our defenders got too out of place and I’m over-reacting by looking into these instances.
Now, something that definitely was by design was us doubling Carmelo Anthony, the first such occasion this season, and after criticizing such an idea last week, I’m obliged to look back at this event.
To start off, I was quite saddened by the basketball gods and that they allowed these two following shots to fall upon Carmelo checking in the game as a 4 and facing Cody Zeller:
Clifford taking a time-out and switching Zeller for Marvin was what followed these two plays (for the record, I don’t feel like Cliff is to be blamed for this as it is a tricky match-up and a defensive coach is likely to react in such a manner after two straight baskets), however, I do believe this is an instance of having to write the story while the ball is in the air. Cody contested both of the jumpers darn well and was surprisingly close to Melo (the help defender being close obviously made this decision easier), seemingly not fazed by the possibility of Anthony driving past him. I wish we would have seen this match-up a bit more, given Zeller’s stretches of good perimeter defense this year.
Either way… After having Marv front Anthony on some possessions and getting burnt on a couple of digs at Melo in the post, we went to a few double teams. The results weren’t all that bad, but it’s just that these particular plays coincided with New York’s comeback:
Here Pablo Prigioni uses us fronting Melo and over-loading the strong side by smartly driving at the Marvin-Carmelo clutter, it creating sort of a screen for him, and finding a three-point shooter:
Add Lance losing a three-point shooter a couple of possessions later and that’s how the Knicks shot their way back into the game. I’ll file this under unsuccessful attempts of doubling the post…
Kemba’s Game-Winner vs. Knicks
Was this all a master plan? Did Clifford go to this play repeatedly until one time the defense would fall for it when Al doesn’t set an actual pick? Is it something Kemba did on his own and attacked before Al set the screen? Or was there simply not enough time left for a real pick-n-roll that Clifford still would have drawn up? Perhaps, Amare just had a brain-fart and committed to a screen that he shouldn’t have paid attention to?
Either way, it’s a cool trick by Kemba of attacking the basket once he sensed that Amare was way too high up and that there was a lane to the basket:
Just a reminder of how this had gone for us so far:
Zone Defense vs. Boston
The third game of the past week also produced a previously unseen look for us as we went to zone defense for five straight possessions. Even though it’s used rather sparingly in the NBA, I suppose that there is a certain appeal to us trying this as it could limit Jefferson’s defensive incapabilities. Being from Europe and having gone through our youth basketball system, NBA zone defenses usually make me cringe. I assume that with the AAU basketball culture reigning in the USA, very few of the guys have ever properly learned the zone. In my experience, talking and always finding a man to guard, instead of blindly stationing yourself in what supposedly is your zone of responsibility, is a cardinal rule for zone defenses.
Our zone was pretty much everything I’ve come to expect out of NBA zone defenses. It looks like a deliberate attempt to do your best so the 2-3 formation wouldn’t lose its shape, even if that means guarding absolutely no one:
Evan Turner proceeded to walk back to the three-point line, while Gary Neal stood his pointless ground, Brian Roberts stood next to Kelly Olynyk and watched him for a solid second before Olynyk decided to drive (uninterrupted by Roberts who, of course, had more pressing matters than the player with the ball) and Cody Zeller was bound to leave Marcus Thornton even more once a pass collapsed our whole defense:
The Celtics walked in that possession as confused about what to do as our guys did. But they still managed to tear our zone apart without any real plan. It’s just as easy as hitting the big guy on the foul line with a pass and then watching everybody collapse on him and thus leaving shooters open:
All in all, Boston got an open three every time down the floor, save for a possession on which Avery Bradley launched one a bit too quick. They made two of those five shots (with Bradley being the one who had all of the three misses) and forced a time-out by coach Clifford and thus a switch on defense:
This last possession really fascinates me. For a second you can see how nobody even knows what to do when you transition back to a zone defense. I mean, everybody is freaking wide open before our guys slide into the pointless, exact formation of 2-3 and cover at least two of the five guys:
Some things just are certain. Michael Jordan is the greatest player ever, the Cunninlynguists are awesome and NBA zone defenses generally are bad. Very bad.
Kemba’s Cuts Past Al:
The Boston game contained these two beauties between Big Al and Kemba:
An absolute like of the week. I enjoyed the way Kemba doesn’t stop his motion and instantly goes for the cut right by Al to execute the give-and-go. Much better than the casual version of floating the pass in and then wandering somewhere towards the paint with no sense of urgency at all that we do most of the time.
MKG is Back! And He Attacks:
Last night Jeff Green was doing what some defenders tend to do when they are guarding Mike – he gave him all the space in the world not being concerned about his jump-shot. I loved how MKG turned this into an advantage and used the free space to gain a full head of steam towards the now suddenly unenviable Green:
I’m very glad to have Mike back.
Lolcats Play of the Week:
Boy, it was a tough week… I had a hard time choosing just one play as there was plenty of competition. What ultimately settled this is the fact that the following play came down the stretch in a somewhat important moment. Our winner is the Lance Stephenson and Kemba Walker fast-break against Boston:
Lolcat of the Week:
Not only does Lance share the honor for the weekly Lolcats play of the Week, he has also become the first, inaugural winner of the Lolcat of the Week award thanks to the conversation Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe had on one of the latest BS Reports (the conversation about our Hornets starts at about the 26:45 mark). Here’s a transcript of the part of the conversation that perturbed me:
Bill Simmons: Do you have a theory [on our slow start]?
Zach Lowe: I mean, I was down on them before the season, but this is preposterous, what’s happening. They should not be this bad. They just don’t have shooting and their defense has been more of what we expected last year when they sort of out-performed by a mile. As for Lance… You know, look, he had a groin injury in the pre-season and the people with the team say, you know, that just kind of really hampered both his jumper and his ability to find his place early on, you know, where I’m gonna get my shots and how I’m gonna play with this new bunch of guys. They also played a very tough schedule so they will sort of bank some wins coming up against bad teams. But the bottom line is he can’t shoot, he’s not shooting, he can’t make shots. And if he can’t make shots, it makes harder for him to get to the rim and if he can’t get to the rim, he’s not really doing much. His…. what’s the proper way to say this…
Bill Simmons: demeanor!
Zach Lowe: … his demeanor has been awful. This is not like us from a thousand miles away saying this. I was there. People hate it there. It’s a real thing. The team is not thrilled with what they have got out of him, let’s put it that way.
Now it’s hard to determine to what degree can the phrase “people hate it there” be applied to the overall mood of the locker-room and the team. For what it’s worth, Lance flailing his arms after not receiving the ball or a team-mate missing a shot off his assist is a regular occurrence. I didn’t need to dig in deep to find these. It’s something I can quickly look up and cut out of the two last games every time. And that’s not to mention him colliding with team-mates for rebounds from time to time or returning back on defense a second later than usual after he visibly wanted to get the ball, yet didn’t receive it.
But the way Lowe (who visited our team and watched two games in Charlotte earlier on in the season) expressed the situation around Lance makes it sound very frightening. Is it just that Stephenson has regularly showed up his team-mates on the court or is there something more to this? Did it only take him a month for some guys to dislike him? And who are the people in question who “hate it here”? I really don’t like the sound of this.
We’re only two and a half games behind the 8th seed so our season is far from done in the lowly Eastern conference. But you have to consider that the two close wins at home we just got were against very mediocre Eastern teams, that evidently the overall atmosphere amongst the team isn’t the best and that we have one of the least cohesive rosters in the league. Be prepared for a sluggish 30+ win season where our post-season luck depends on the success of other average Eastern teams, possible trades to shake up our awkward roster and games in March between two .400 teams that somehow manage to matter…
(Side-note – for more Hornets stuff in the podcast world, you can check out a Kemba Walker interview in the latest NBA Hang Time Podcast)