04-28-2011, 05:32 AM
For the lazy; and yeah it's a great article
Rx for playoff success: Tough, hard D ... but not too hard
by David Aldridge
Posted Apr 25 2011 6:42AM
Paul Pierce is OK with defending without fouling. But only to a point.
"We don't foul a lot?," Pierce asked Saturday.
Well, more than some, less than others.
"We need to," he continued. "We need to. A little bit more, for my taste. You gotta send somebody a message sometimes. I think we are lacking that. Nah, I'm for real on that. I was mad when 'Melo had 42 (against Boston in Game 2 of the series) and he kept going to the hole, and he didn't go to the ground. That's playoffs, though. That ain't trying to hurt nobody. It's an unspoken rule."
Pierce and his Celtics walk the fine line between old-school and new-age NBA defense, a line constantly crossed back and forth by teams, players and coaches today who want to be physical, but also want to stay in the game.
Today's game requires teams that want to compete for championships be able to defend without fouling -- a seemingly simple concept that is actually difficult to master. The playoffs are the ultimate test of defensive discipline and structure, and the teams that can adjust while still not sending opponents into the penalty early are the ones that have the best chance to win late.
"The natural reaction is to not allow guys to score. You try to foul," says Knicks guard Roger Mason, Jr., who spent two years with the Spurs, one of the best teams ever at not fouling.
It doesn't mean that those defend-without-fouling teams are the best at field-goal percentage or points allowed -- stats that have been devalued by some in the era of adjusted win shares and pace and PER. But there usually is a correlation between those stats, fouls committed and defensive rebounds. A team that has been able to defend without fouling, one that is consistently in the top five in fewest fouls committed, like the Spurs -- nine times in the last 10 seasons, and top two in fewest fouls in four of the last five seasons -- is always going to have a chance in the postseason.
The line is pretty consistent. The Pistons' run to six straight Eastern Conference finals from 2002-08 dovetails with their standing on the fouls list -- four times in six years they've been among teams with the fewest fouls. As they began to age, the line slipped -- 14th in 2007 and out of the top 15 altogether in 2008. The same rings true for Sacramento, whose championship window at the beginning of last decade is exactly when the Kings began showing up in the top five in fewest fouls (second in 2001, fourth in 2002, second in 2003, third in 2004, second in 2005). It's not a coincidence that Minnesota's last season in the top half of the league in fewest fouls was Kevin Garnett's last season with the Timberwolves.
There are outliers. The threepeat Lakers of 1999-2002 were not especially good at not fouling, with a top showing of 10th in the league in 1999-2000. And the current Celtics aren't that good, either, maxing out at 15th this season. In Boston's case, though, the Celtics have a one-two combination of pace (eighth-best in the league in ESPN sabermetrician John Hollinger's team statistics) and defensive efficiency -- the number of points a team allows per 100 possessions. Boston finished second only to Chicago in that stat, allowing just 97.8 points per 100 possessions.
"We're in an actual defensive system," Pierce said. "With other coaches I've been with, there was no actual defensive system. One night we'd play one way and the next night we'd play another way. There was no consistency. With our club, we have that consistency each and every night. I've actually been on good defensive teams where it was, basically, Rucker Park (the celebrated New York playground). You know, you've got your man, whatever happens. But you notice, that's with all the bad teams."
A lot has conspired to make playing good defense without fouling difficult. The speed of today's players, for one. Rules changes that began in 1994, when hand checking was eliminated from the end line in the backcourt to the opposite foul line. More rules changes, through 2004, that further limited hand and body contact. More players coming to the pro game without strong defensive fundamentals. It's hard.
The teams that spend hours on sliding drills, and hand placement drills, and communicating instructions to each other day after day, practice after tedious practice, are those that play in May and June. It's no coincidence that Boston breezed by the Knicks, and the Heat are up on the Sixers and the Bulls lead the Pacers. Yes, they're more talented. But they're also superior defensively.
"Obviously, if you could play the old way, we would," Boston's Doc Rivers said Friday, after the Celtics dismantled the Knicks in Game 3. "What's difficult now is the small guards are back in. Before the changes, you could take them out of the lane. But you think about the guards now, they're amazing to guard. Taking away the touching above the free throw line has just changed the game."
Not fouling is a priority for first-year Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who brought the same system that had been so successful in Boston in recent years to Chicago. (He did not, of course, bring Garnett). The Bulls finished ninth in the league in fewest fouls this season as they amassed the top record in the East. Derrick Rose's MVP-caliber season had a lot to do with it, but so did Thibodeau's amazing, relentless attention to detail; in the Bulls' next-to-last game of the regular season, against New York, having already clinched the top spot in the conference, they spent 90 minutes at their pregame shootaround going over 18 Knicks plays. One of the Knicks told Bulls guard Kyle Korver it was the longest shootaround he'd seen at the Garden all season.
"We do a lot," Korver said. "His whole thing is it's drilled into your mind, and by the time you get to the playoffs, you're no longer thinking about those things. You're able to think about more, because you're already naturally doing certain things, and you can focus on the details and adjustments in the game. Which, you know, it works. We're in first place. I can't say anything."
Today's NBA coaches may come from different places, but with a few exceptions -- notably, Phil Jackson and Scott Skiles -- most of the game's best defensive minds and defensive teams arise from two dominant coaching wings.
From the Larry Brown Wing come coaches like Gregg Popovich (Brown plucked Popovich from Division III Pomona-Pizer to a volunteer assistant's job at Kansas in 1985, and then brought him to the Spurs as an assistant in 1988); Denver's George Karl -- like Larry Brown, a North Carolina grad and Dean Smith acolyte -- Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks, who started his coaching career under Karl in Denver as an assistant in 2003; Portland coach Nate McMillan, who played for Karl in Seattle; New Orleans coach Monty Williams, who started as an assistant for Popovich in 2003 and spent the last five seasons as McMillan's assistant in Portland; Nets coach Avery Johnson, who played for Popovich and sealed the Spurs' first NBA title in 1999, and former Cavs coach Mike Brown, who was on Popovich's bench in San Antonio from 2000-03.
From the Pat Riley Wing come coaches like Rivers (Rivers played for Riley in New York from 1993-94); ex-Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy and current Magic coach Stan Van Gundy (the sons of longtime college coach Bill Van Gundy, Jeff began his pro coaching career in New York under Stu Jackson and spent time under Riley there, while Stan became Riley's top lieutenant in Miami); Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who started under Riley in the Heat's video room in 1995; Thibodeau, who assisted Jeff Van Gundy in New York and Houston and Rivers in Boston, and former Nets coach Lawrence Frank, whom Rivers hired this year to replace Thibodeau as his top defensive assistant.
Celtics president Danny Ainge gave Rivers all the accolades last week, telling the Boston Globe that his team's defense "isn't Tom Thibodeau's defense. It isn't Lawrence Frank's defense. It's Doc Rivers' defense." But Rivers, who knows what a copycat league this is, deflected the praise.
"I think it's everybody's defense," Rivers said. "Thibs was huge for me. He really was. It was what we discussed, but he still had a lot of input. I don't think it's anybody's. It's all of us. You can make a case it's Dick Harter's defense. (Harter, the longtime assistant coach generally regarded as one of the finest defensive minds in the game, was on Riley's staff when Rivers played in New York in 1992 and 1993.) You really can. We've changed since then, but we're all from the same tree."
Fifteen years after Popovich took over in San Antonio as coach, the Spurs are still among the league's best at defending without fouling. San Antonio finished the regular season tied with Miami for fewest disqualifications (0.02 per game) and committed the third-fewest fouls this season (18.98, behind only Atlanta and the Lakers). The Spurs gave up more points this season than normal, even adjusted for pace (102.6, 11th best in the league), but that was partly a result of Popovich's decision to let the Spurs run more this season.
"You couldn't play (in San Antonio) if you couldn't not foul," Mason said. "Pop stresses that at the start of training camp and continues it through the playoffs. It's a huge point of emphasis. Pop just tries to get heady players, guys that understand the game. They expect you to know not to foul and be sound defensively. That's a part of being a bad defender, if you're fouling. Obviously, in that system, they don't want bad defenders."
Under Thibodeau, the Bulls have also become a shutdown defensive unit.
"You have to have a lot of concentration on body position," Thibodeau said. "We want to play the ball well, with technique, but we're not a passing lane, deny, steal, gamble-type team. So we play more body position-type defense. I think that helps. We try not to be reckless. I (believe in) pulling back your hands at the end, and when we challenge shots, we try to go straight up, straight down. I think your technique and your discipline (is important), and studying, knowing your opponent -- there's a lot of guys that are great at utilizing shot fakes, both before and after the dribble -- so knowing when you're guarding those guys, at the end, not to reach in."
Ironically, it was a San Antonio offensive technique that has forced teams to adjust how they coach defense. Tim Duncan became one of the best ever at squaring up against his defender and bringing the ball low -- and then, just as the defender brought his hands down to waist level, coming up and through with the ball to draw contact and force referees to call a shooting foul. It's used throughout the league now.
"The way the play is being called now, with the guys going up under the arms, they're getting that call," Thibodeau said. "So we've worked on our technique with keeping the (defender's) hand high. So it's not in there where they can draw that foul. So I think that helps us also."
The Celtics' defensive principles are like most good defensive teams: Do not allow teams to get into the paint. Force everything baseline. Contest shots and passes -- "We don't like direct line passes because you can't recover from those," Rivers said Sunday. Load up on one side of the floor and force the ball to be rotated to the weak side, but be able to rotate, recover and help so that there are no open shots on that side of the floor, either. No trapping or double-teaming unless it's absolutely necessary, as when the Knicks' Anthony was going wild against Boston in Game 2. It requires constant drilling in camp -- shell drills, sliding drills, over and over and over.
"If one guy makes a mistake and he's not in his right spot, then it breaks down the whole defense," Pierce said. "You can have four guys that did perfect, did what they were supposed to be doing, but if one guy messes up, it breaks everybody. We've been playing together for a while. We know each other's tendencies. Even when guys break the rules -- I think Rondo probably breaks the rules more than anybody -- but we give him that freedom because he's such a good (player) at roaming, and stealing the ball and causing havoc. But if we haven't played with him, it would be a problem. But since we've played with him, we know how to work that into the defensive system."
Now think about how a guy like Celtics newcomer Jeff Green has to adjust on the fly, without the benefit of a training camp and all those drills.
Green came from Oklahoma City in the Kendrick Perkins trade, and has had to try to fit into the Rivers/Thibodeau system immediately. Undersized at power forward, Green, as mentioned in a Tip earlier this month, is in a vastly different defense now. The Thunder were relatively small before acquiring Perkins, so Oklahoma City would concede some corner 3-point attempts in order to keep its paint tight and not allow dribble penetration. That is the exact opposite of what Rivers demands. In Boston, Green has to be able to contest a "stretch four" in the corner, yet not allow him to compromise Boston's D off the dribble.
"When he comes out on the floor looking at the shooter (in OKC), staring him down, he might be a little bit more lackadaisical with the contest," Ray Allen said of his new teammate. "But here, you can ask him at any given time, Doc has been on his butt about closing out too short, making sure he runs that guy off of the three. What people don't see is just that adjustment period, changing over in your mind the signals, the defensive calls, offensively, just the whole philosophy of how we play. And now we're incorporating him and he's playing a lot of minutes. So getting him to understand, to apply it in a game situation on the spur of the moment, it's a tough adjustment for anybody."
When Chicago's training camp opened, Thibodeau had players that had been with him when he'd put in similar defenses for Jeff Van Gundy in New York and Houston and Doc Rivers in Boston.
"The big thing that probably helped us a lot from the start was having Kurt Thomas, (Brian) Scalabrine, Keith Bogans and John Lucas," Thibodeau said. "They were guys who had gone through it before. So they helped move the group along quickly. And these guys, their commitment to each other has been fantastic from the start. They got there early, they put a lot of work into it, and they play for each other."
But bringing in three other players who'd spent much of their last few years in Utah -- Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer -- and who had been schooled in the Jerry Sloan Way of defending meant a major adjustment for 25 percent of Thibodeau's roster.
Sloan believed in sticking with your man, showing quickly on screen and rolls, not rotating -- and pounding the hell out of the opposition for 48 minutes. Over time, he believed, the opponent would wear down from all of that beating and submit in the fourth quarter. It was Old School in the best possible sense of those words, and Sloan won 1,221 times coaching that way over 26 seasons.
"That was was just coach Sloan's style," Korver said. "He would say, at the end of the first quarter, 'You guys only have two fouls; you're not playing real hard.' He judged how hard we were playing by how physical we were playing. That was a big part of our philosophy. So here, obviously, it's a little bit different philosophy. It's not just 'don't foul;' it's a different scheme."
Not better. Different.
"In Utah, we were taught to force middle," Korver said. "Here, obviously, we force baseline. In Utah, it was like, if you let that ball get to the baseline, you're getting pulled out of the game. Here, it's like, if you let that ball get to the middle, you're getting pulled out of the game. It's a whole, as you're closing out, it's different mindset. It takes a little time. It's been drilled in you that hard, it takes a while (to adjust)."
Rivers has had to adjust, too. It was a battlefield conversion. "Riles' rule was to foul every time, and they'll stop calling them," he said. But the league has legislated that out of the game. It's probably a good thing, too. No one liked to watch 80-75 games with wrestling in the post, and two players isolated above the foul line and out of the play entirely to try and draw an illegal defense call. It was ugly basketball to watch and not much fun to play.
Which begs the question: Could guys like Glenn (Doc) Rivers and Derek Harper -- big, strong but not especially fast point guards in their day -- play defense today, without fouling?
"It would be hard," Rivers said. "We could play, because offensively we'd be, with our bodies, we would be the guys in the paint that you couldn't do anything about. Defensively, we'd be good defenders, because we were still good defenders. But we would have to make some adjustments."
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