It’s no one’s fault. Frankly, the first two months of Lamar Patterson’s marvelous senior season went by mostly unnoticed for pretty good reasons. Besides, the fifth-year senior’s career to date was that of an archetypal Jamie Dixon player: solid, consistent, productive and inconspicuous. We had him pegged, right? There was zero reason to see this coming.
“This,” as we now know, is the best individual campaign waged by any player not named Doug McDermott. In Saturday’s victory at Maryland, Pitt’s star forward poured in 28 points on 14 shots with seven rebounds, seven assists and four steals. It was a helpful microcosm of his peerless season in whole. To date, Patterson is averaging 17.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game. He uses 28 percent of his team’s possessions, and he is ruthlessly efficient with them, whether he’s scoring (he shoots 56.6 percent from 2 and 42.9 percent from 3) or distributing (where 32.8 percent of his possessions end in assists). As a helpful bonus, Patterson manages to contribute to Pitt’s elite defense by rebounding and racking up those steals, all while committing just under two fouls per 40 minutes.
He also has one of the prettiest jump shots in recorded human history. So there’s that.
In other words: There is nothing Patterson hasn’t done well this season. When Duke’s defense arrives Monday night, it doesn’t merely face the prospect of a tough road game against a good Pittsburgh team in a raucous Petersen Events Center. It has to find a way to stop -- or, to use the cliche, hope to contain -- one of the two or three best offensive players in the country.
This is a daunting ask of any team. It is especially so given the Blue Devils’ season-long defensive struggles. Even factoring for Duke’s recent strides — the Blue Devils played their best defensive game of the season Saturday against Florida State and held NC State and Miami to 106 points in 127 possessions before that — the sheer matchup implications are frightening. Patterson is a walking, talking, sweet-shooting, 6-foot-8 matchup nightmare. Do you dare expose Rodney Hood to that? Can you ask Jabari Parker to turn into a lockdown defender overnight? Do you really want either player chasing Patterson off screens all night?
No. To have any hope, Duke will have to defend Patterson as a team. Phase One of any such plan means never, ever losing him on the wing. More than 23 percent of Patterson’s possessions to date have come via spot-up shots, according to Synergy, when he averages 1.28 points per possession. Nearly 40 percent of Patterson’s overall possessions are 3s, per hoop-math.com. You can’t let him shoot, plain and simple. If you do, Phase Two is prayer.
If you don’t, Phase Two of the stop-Patterson plan means turning hard close-outs into good team recoveries. When Patterson puts the ball on the floor, he wants to get to the rim, where he shoots nearly 70 percent. Rotating and forcing him to stop short -- coaxing him into mid-range jumpers, where he shoots just 40 percent -- is your best chance of a missed shot.
The brings us to Phase Three: Owning the top of pick and rolls. Dixon puts Patterson into pick and rolls on 19.5 percent of his possessions. Sometimes, these possessions come from designed plays — fluid little multi-pick rollout sets that get multiple defenders chasing screens before the pivotal pick for Patterson is set. Sometimes, these possessions come from breakdowns — Pitt’s offense will work the shot clock to a stalemate then pull out, set Patterson alone in space, and let him figure it out.
Overall, Patterson averages 0.81 points per possession as the ball-handler on pick and rolls. That’s good (synergy actually describes it as “good,” so you know it’s … OK, sorry) but stoppable. For all of his gifts, Patterson is still a 6-8 forward handling the ball more than ever before. He wants to shoot over the top of those screens, and if he can’t, he wants to get to the rim, score, get fouled, or both. Good defenses — such as Clemson, which switched athletic bigs and forced two turnovers* and two misses in Patterson’s five pick and roll plays — can hassle him into mistakes. (*Worth noting: The first turnover was a travel Patterson committed a split-second before burying a 3. Also worth noting: Pitt blew Clemson out of its own building anyway.)
If a defense can siphon Patterson into that awkward middle area between his silky jumper and his powerful interior finishes, it can do a job. If.
We might not have seen Patterson coming, but Coach K will. It is safe to assume Mike Krzyzewski, who notched his 900th Duke victory Saturday, knows all of this already. Whether his team can execute it Monday night will determine whether he gets win No. 901.