Well, all I can say after last night's game is that I am irrationally excited about this team after a couple of bad losses. Will they come back to Earth? Probably a little bit, but last night's performance showed me that the team is closer to their great play in February/March than their last two stinkers. Let's take a look at a key adjustment the Sixers made on the fly to change the tone of the game.
One big topic among Sixers fans that gives us hope for the future is the defensive promise shown by Jrue Holiday. Everybody can admit that he has great physical (and mental) attributes on that end, but there's been an elephant in the room this year: Other point guards routinely go off for big nights against Jrue. We're not just talking about great ones either; guys like D.J. Augustin and Darren Collison have had great success against Jrue and the Sixers.
The question is why? Well, part of the reason is that the guards behind Jrue who defend the point, most notably Lou Williams, play a few minutes a game against starting guards. That's not as big of a factor as you would think, but it plays a part. I have spent some time thinking about why this is happening. For a while, I wondered if it had to do with Doug Collins' scheme, but ultimately, I couldn't find a reason.
In the New York Times' "Off the Dribble" blog, Rob Mahoney talks about Jrue's defensive tools but also points out his fundamental weakness, which others on Depressed Fan have recently talked about. This specifically is the way Jrue handles screens in the pick and roll, probably the most vital skill to guarding NBA point guards. Here's a snippet of what Mahoney said:
Holiday has other defensive weaknesses, but the most glaring is his inability to fight through screens and pursue. He doesn't recover quickly, and unless he's defending an opponent who allows him to go under the screen altogether, the action tends to throw Holiday off rather easily.
I decided to look at it tonight, and Mahoney's points were shown clearly as the Sixers beat the Clippers. In the early going, Mo Williams scored seven points for the Clippers, and you won't be surprised to hear that they all involved poor pick and roll coverage. The replay shows that Jrue is at fault, but his bigs, notably Elton Brand, gave him little help. This time, I am going to use pictures to tell the story. I apologize for the hazy nature of my cell phone and the TV bar showing at the bottom, but they'll do the trick:
Unfortunately for Jrue, Mo Williams' major asset is scoring the basketball, and he can shoot the three. Even though he's frankly not a good player, he is capable of getting hot shooting the ball and he's not a poor enough shooter where you can simply go under the pick. So on this pick Jrue goes over and does what I think is a good job. The problem? Look where Brand is standing. It's pretty easy to score off the pick and roll when the guard goes over and you have a running start at the big. That's something you see Shaq doing, but Brand is more agile than that. Brand ended up retreating further and gave Williams the space for an easy eight-foot jumper, which he canned.
This one is where EB and Jrue are, in my opinion, equally at fault. Jrue completely runs into the screen. Whether he goes under or over it, he has to do so directly in order to help and get back to the man. The only time screen and roll defense should look like that is an automatic switch, and looking at where Brand is standing (again, unacceptable, whether it's him or Collins' instruction) plus common sense (Big and a small, early in the game) tells you that it's not an automatic switch.
Looking for Jrue in the first picture reminds me of the Where's Waldo books that I read as a kid. Look hard behind Blake Griffin and you'll see him. In that spot, he gets stuck to the screen, which he can't do. With how far that screen is from the three-point line, he clearly has to go under, which he eventually does. The problem with getting stuck is that he can't shoot the gap and take a sharp angle to recover and cut off Williams. The fourth picture shows that Williams has him on his hip, which means one thing: "Advantage, offense." He eventually draws the contact and makes a tough fall away shot.
At this point, Doug Collins must have told Brand to start playing more aggressively on the screen (Well, that or the players made the adjustment). It stopped this early spell of offense and staked the Sixers to an early lead and served as the strategy they used for most of the game.
On the next pick and roll, Brand was on the three-point line, ready to show hard. Griffin forgets the pick and dives into the lane where he got the ball. As shown in the second screen, the Sixers knew that Blake wasn't a threat outside of two feet. As long as you met him before he could viciously dunk, then you did your job. He was not pulling up and shooting a soft six-footer. Hawes meets Griffin nicely.
Here is the key for this specific game. The Clippers' wings did not really strike the Sixers' as long-range shooting threats, so Iguodala picked up DeAndre Jordan and left Ryan Gomes. As you see in the first picture, as Blake gets cleanly blocked by Brand from behind (See, he's agile enough to recover), Gomes is wide open on the three-point line. Whether Blake made the wrong play I'm not sure, but I do know that he didn't make the right one. I also know that he did complain to the ref about a clean block and wasted plenty of time getting back on defense, and Iguodala threw down a hellacious slam on the other end in semi-transition. You can see that here:
They used that strategy to frustrate Blake into a 3-12 game with Spencer Hawes and Brand doing most of the defending. The Clippers only took 13 threes, but I'd be willing to say they had the option to get an open three often when they ran the pick and roll.
Now back to Jrue, obviously that game plan is not sustainable against better teams. The Sixers would even execute against that defense right now by putting Jodie Meeks in the cornr. Jrue obviously needs to improve at taking better angles to get around screens, which he will improve at being only 20 years of age. That's more of a mental thing, but I'd like him to start thinking that way ASAP, because that's the way he's going to have to play.
Jrue is undoubtedly going to need better pick and roll defense from his bigs though. If he got help and was trapped like he often is on the offensive end, many of these big games would disappear from opposing PG's. I was wondering why in the world Collins would let Brand play that type of lazy defense in the beginning and it actually is pretty obvious. With Brand down low, he has both of his big guys, both subpar shot-blockers, able to meet drivers early. If Brand were to show hard on a screen, the "roll" guy (Blake in this case) would be one-on-one with Spencer Hawes, which the Sixers don't want.
My guess is this strategy is by design. I think that Collins would rather have Jrue try to pick up the slack by playing one-on-two against the pick and rolls than have Hawes play one-on-one with Blake Griffin. If it's a better defensive big (I seem to remember having one of those) back there, maybe it's a different story. That's the burden of the 2010-11 Sixers, winning with flawed pieces. This is not meant as a total dump on Hawes either, who has played pretty well recently, including a (gulp) very solid defensive effort last night.
Great work, Rich. Happy St. Patty's day, everyone.