TrueHoop: Kyle Korver
As the stampede of foreign press filed in (no one from Atlanta’s media outlets made the trip to cover the Eastern Conference-leading Hawks), Budenholzer stood over the seated Carroll and delivered a kind message to his lockdown defender. As Budenholzer finished, he laid his hands on either side of Carroll’s head, as an emotional punctuation mark, then disappeared into the visiting coach’s office.
Carroll was clearly moved by his coach's gesture. When asked what Budenholzer had told him, Carroll demured. It’s just not in the DNA of the Hawks to share a private moment between player and coach, even after said player racked up 17 points on eight shots from the field, collected eight rebounds, dished out with four assists, performed his usual custodial work on the defensive end of the floor and took a nasty spill in the second half that kept him on the ground well into a timeout.
These are the Atlanta Hawks, who are every bit as measured off the court as they are on it. These are grown men who go about the business of surgically dissecting two Western Conference contenders, then go en masse to a non-mandatory team dinner, something they do routinely after both wins and losses. The camaraderie is authentic, even if the personalities are, with a few exceptions, pretty mellow.
“The reason it’s authentic is that everyone has bought in,” Al Horford said. “We enjoy working with each other.”
Working isn't an idle word choice. Locker rooms come in any number of shapes and sizes. A giddy one doesn’t mean the players inside aren't serious about winning basketball games, but spend time with the Hawks and there’s a distinct air of buttoned-up professionalism -- an office populated by mature adults who understand work-life balance and the division of labor.
“We have guys who don’t play, who have guaranteed contracts beyond this year and they work their asses off because they want us to be better and want to contribute,” veteran big man Elton Brand said.
One thing that often gets lost in the discussion about culture and chemistry -- the system installed in Atlanta by way of San Antonio demands a strict selflessness. Break off from the sequence of actions in the half court and the stuff falls apart. Everyone on the floor devotes himself to the idea that if you stay in motion, the ball will work its way to the logical recipient before the shot clock expires.
So when guys spend practices, shootarounds, walk-throughs and film sessions preaching the gospel of sharing the ball, it’s not at all weird or cultish to spend time together around a dinner table: “Breaking bread is what coach calls it,” Carroll said.
In his 17th season now, Brand has a counterintuitive theory for the Hawks’ success -- namely, that it’s the absence of superstars that makes the enterprise work in Atlanta, which is now 26-8.
“Not to dump on any specific team, but when you play against a superstar, you know exactly where the ball is going,” Brand said. “Certain guys are going to get the ball at certain times at certain spots. They're running their sets.”
It’s not as if the Hawks don’t have a well-formed foundation -- just about every player in the league who has read a scouting report has been versed in the choreography of the Spurs-style motion deployed by Atlanta, but the system is predicated on intelligent players making intelligent decisions based largely on the behavior of the defense. So when opponents show out Kyle Korver as he comes off a pin-down, Korver can dish the ball to Horford or Pero Antic, who after pinning Korver’s guy has slipped to the basket.
This works on the other end of the floor too, where the Hawks have climbed from the bottom half of the league to No. 6 overall in defensive efficiency. Though it’s not an extraordinarily gifted group of individual defenders, the Hawks are versatile and, more than that, heady. They've made a habit of switching up coverages multiple times per night, as they did in their win over Portland on Saturday, keeping the Trail Blazers off balance. Sounds obvious, but asking a team to master multiple coverages for a single matchup is a difficult proposition … unless the team has the collective smarts and trust to make guerrilla warfare its overriding strategy.
Absent a dynamic creator, the Hawks are banking on their intelligence to carry them out of the Eastern Conference, which they currently lead by 1½ games. Rather than fly home to Atlanta on a red-eye charter, the Hawks opted to stay in Los Angeles for the night, where a majority of the team broke bread at the quaint Italian joint Piccolo, just off Venice Beach.
Leave it to the Hawks to choose the one restaurant in town that begged to be left out of the encyclopedic Zagat restaurant guide, even though it received quality reviews.
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesJeff Teague will be the driving force in Atlanta's new offense.
Ever since Joe Johnson arrived in Atlanta in 2005, the big scoring guard defined the Hawks’ tempo and style of play. Though Johnson himself was a reasonably efficient scorer in Atlanta’s isolation-heavy attack, the Hawks’ offense was usually in the middle of the pack during his tenure. In the Hawks' series with Boston, a team whose defense is specifically designed to counter isolation scorers, he managed just 37 percent shooting and was unable to get into the paint off the dribble -- he hoisted six 3-pointers per game.
Then there was the other side of the Hawks’ playoff offense, one fueled by high pick-and-rolls between Jeff Teague and Josh Smith. While Teague was, at times, sloppy with the ball, the explosive point guard routinely raced around the edges of the Celtics’ help defense, carving tunnels into the center of Boston’s second-ranked defense.
The two styles weren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but certainly Teague’s fantastic athleticism would lend itself to a faster pace than the more controlled, measured isolation-focused offense.
But after trading Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets, it appears the Hawks have decided to give Teague the keys to the offense. Instead of wing isolations, the new Hawks roster is well-equipped to adopt an up-tempo, spread pick-and-roll attack more along the lines of Steve Nash’s old Suns than anything we’ve seen from Atlanta in the last five years. Expect the Hawks to incur some dings and scratches early on, but this offense has the potential to be one of the most efficient and prolific in the East.
Here’s how it could work:
The fundamental purpose of a spread pick-and-roll offense is to open up the middle of the court. That’s the space that is the most difficult for help defenses to account for, which partly explains why Dirk Nowitzki’s high-post game was so devastating in Dallas’ 2011 championship run.
Typically, two or three shooters align themselves along the 3-point line (often in the corners, to make helping off even harder) while the point guard and big man run a pick-and-roll in the middle of the court. As the screener rolls to the rim, the other big man (assuming he isn’t a Ryan Anderson-type that can camp out on the perimeter) flashes up from the baseline to the top of the key.
While there are countless permutations, the essential goal is to create a 2-on-1 in the middle of the court between the point guard and the big man rolling to the rim. When a defender rotates off a shooter to help down low, the point guard must find the open man.
Though he doesn’t have to be Atlanta’s best offensive player, Teague, who is 24 years old and coming into his fourth NBA season, would be the most important piece in a pick-and-roll based offense. A passable 3-point shooter, Teague has a burst to the bucket that rivals elite athletes like John Wall and Derrick Rose. Because it takes only a sliver of daylight for Teague to end up with two points at the rim, his explosiveness puts real pressure on the entire defense. When defenses play soft, he can counter with a nice little floater. For a guard still considered somewhat raw, Teague is an adroit pick-and-roll scorer.
That helps, because though Teague reads the floor well, he isn’t an especially creative passer like Rajon Rondo. Still, Teague seems to regard himself as a more traditional point guard than a super-scorer like Russell Westbrook. Teague's 4.9 assists per game in 2011-12 are a bit underwhelming, but it’s not bad considering how much Johnson and even Smith dominated the ball in the half court. But even in his hybrid role last year, Teague showed good feel for knowing how to occupy the defense’s attention then pass off the dribble.
That’s going to come in handy this season, when he’s surrounded by a full stable of shooters.
The second (and third) gunman
A spread pick-and-roll is only as effective if the shooters pose a real threat to the defense. Enter lights-out gunners Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow and rookie John Jenkins. Heck, even Devin Harris, who will likely share the backcourt with Teague in a two point-guard lineup along the lines of the Andre Miller-Ty Lawson pairing in Denver, shot 39 percent on spot-up 3-pointers last season.
HoopSpeak's Brett Koremenos has a theory I really like called “The Rule of Three,” which boils down to the idea that it’s much easier to have a really efficient NBA offense if at least three shooters are on the court at once. That doesn’t mean 3-point shooters, necessarily, which means Al Horford’s reliable long-2 game counts. Zaza Pachulia is decent from there, as well. After general manager Danny Ferry’s run on 3-point bombers, the Hawks have enough shooting depth to keep the corner-3 battlements manned at all times.
High on the High-Low
Al Horford and Josh Smith might be a little undersized for a starting front court, but they complement each other wonderfully in a pick-and-roll offense. Criticisms about Smith’s shot selection are deserved, but there’s no doubt he is one of the elite finishers in the NBA. Even though he’s listed at 6-foot-9, Smith stretches the floor vertically in a manner similar to 7-footers like Tyson Chandler. The threat of Smith catching on the move, whether it’s a lob or a bounce pass en route to the rim, can cause defenses to sink into the paint even before the ball is passed his way.
Meanwhile, Horford (a skilled finisher himself) is a deadly pick-and-pop player who can command attention even 18 feet from the rim, not unlike what Chris Bosh often does for Miami in secondary pick-and-roll actions. What’s more, both bigs are good passers and ball handlers that can be trusted to find cutters and shooters as the defense scrambles.
Filling the void
Stat guru Bradford Doolittle projects Atlanta to come in second in the East next year in large part because Johnson’s long jump shots will be replaced by more efficient shots like free throws and 3-pointers. Of course, Doolittle also expects Atlanta to win fewer games than they did last year (by percentage), perhaps because, despite getting Horford back, there are serious questions about whether this team can again be a top-10 defensive outfit.
But the departure of Joe Johnson is also a fresh opportunity for Atlanta’s team offense -- and especially Jeff Teague. If Atlanta’s personnel moves are an indication of the team’s on-court philosophy, we will see the 2012-13 Hawks evolve toward a more exciting and efficient style of offense.
The Bulls, who currently lead the Eastern Conference by two games over the Miami Heat, should be able to stay afloat. Below are three reasons that Bulls fans shouldn’t be worried.
Kyle Korver continues to be one of the best shooters in the NBA, primarily in spot-up situations. His 1.30 points per play leads the team and ranks fifth in the NBA among players with at least 40 spot-up plays this season. Korver is fourth in the NBA in three-point field goals off the bench with 28.
Backup point guard C.J. Watson has developed into a reliable floor general behind Rose. He leads the Bulls’ primary bench players in scoring, averaging 7.7 points in games he’s come off the bench. Watson has also been one of the Bulls’ best spot-up shooters; he’s second behind Korver on the team with 1.22 points per play in spot-up situations.
Inside, Omer Asik and Taj Gibson continue to be the Bulls’ defensive enforcers. Their 26 blocks each are tied for second in the NBA among players in games they did not start.
The Bulls’ defense remain one of the best in the NBA. This season, they're allowing just 87.0 points per game, the fewest in the league.
Chicago is fourth in the NBA in opponents’ points per play (0.81) and sixth in opponents' score percentage (39.6) in the half court.
The Bulls have also limited their opponents' production close to the basket, allowing an NBA-low 49.6 points per game within 10 feet of the rim.
Above all, Rose remains the key to the Bulls holding their season together. His scoring average is down from 25.0 points last season to 21.9 points this season, but he’s become more efficient in the offense, attempting fewer shots and averaging a career-high 7.9 assists.
Being the ball handler in the pick and roll has become Rose’s specialty. He’s scoring 1.02 points per play in that type of offense, ranking fourth in the NBA among players with at least 50 plays. Rose has also increased his shooting percentage (49.0) and percentage of plays he’s scored (48.1) as the pick and roll ball handler to almost 50 percent.
The Miami Heat had other plans though, finishing the game on an 18-3 run to advance to the NBA Finals for the second time in franchise history.
According to 10,000 simulations done by Accuscore.com, the Heat had just a 1 percent chance of winning the game with 3:14 remaining.
Just like it's been all season, the "Big Three" for Miami were at the center of it all, scoring 69 of the team's 83 points, including the last 33.
It wasn't all good for the trio though; through three quarters they combined for as many field goals as turnovers (13).
The main culprit was Dwyane Wade, who committed nine turnovers to tie his playoff career-high and the franchise playoff record.
However, along with LeBron James, the pair came alive scoring 22 points in the final frame, while connecting on their last six field goal attempts, three of which came from behind the 3-point line.
More impressive, and possibly more vital, was the work they did on the defensive end shutting the Bulls down in the half court over the final three minutes.
Miami forced Chicago to commit two turnovers and held them to 1-for-4 shooting down the stretch. On the final possession of the game, despite taking over possession with 16.8 seconds remaining, the best shot the Bulls could come up with was a contested 3-point field goal taken by Derrick Rose.
Chicago's offensive inefficiencies down the stretch speak to the Bulls lack of a reliable second option behind Rose, who took 29 shots, over 35 percent of the team's total field goal attempts in Game 5.
Carlos Boozer, brought in this offseason to help anchor some of the offensive load, was on the bench the entire fourth quarter, along with Joakim Noah. The Bulls finished the season with Kurt Thomas, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver and Taj Gibson on the court with Rose.
Boozer and Noah combined for just 10 points in more than 50 minutes. Without help from the duo, the Bulls finished with a series-low 26 points in the paint, 16 of which came in the first quarter.
In the battle of the past two MVP's, James had the upperhand in the series. After going 0-for-5 from the floor with a turnover when guarded by James in Game 4, Rose struggled again, going 1-for-10 with two turnovers in Game 5. Rose shot 6.3 percent from the floor in the series when defended by James, lowest among any player that defended him on five or more plays.
For the series, Rose really struggled down the stretch, shooting just 21.4 percent from the field after the third quarter. This was magnified down the stretch of games 4 and 5, both close battles, in which Rose was just 3-for-17 combined in the fourth quarter and overtime.
But a look deeper proves that you should have expected it all along.
The Bulls had the NBA's best fourth-quarter scoring differential this season at +187 -- 68 points better than any other team in the league. Meanwhile, the Pacers were -126 in fourth quarters, ranking 28th in the NBA (only the Raptors and Timberwolves were worse).
Chicago won four games this season when it trailed by eight or more entering the final quarter. Combining the regular season with this very young postseason, the Bulls are now tied with the Mavericks for the most wins this season when trailing entering the fourth, with 12.
The Bulls began their closing run with two Luol Deng free throws with 3:28 remaining. From that point forward the Pacers didn't make a field goal while the Bulls went 5-of-8 from the field and 5-of-6 at the free throw line.
The Bulls took their first lead of the game when Kyle Korver hit a 3-pointer with 48 seconds left. That's classic Korver. The former Creighton star made 58 three-point field goals in the fourth quarter or overtime this season, tops in the NBA.
But you want to hear about Derrick Rose and how he put his team on his back for the win while pouring in 39 points. Nineteen of his points came from the charity stripe, the most by a player in a playoff game since Kobe Bryant in 2008 (21).
With 4:52 remaining in the game and the Bulls trailing by five, Luol Deng picked up a technical foul. Deng appeared to spark his All-Star teammate as Rose single-handily outscored the Pacers the rest of the way. He either scored or assisted on 14 of the Bulls' final 18 points.
There's still room to improve for the 2011 MVP candidate. Rose scored 35 of his 39 points either at the free-throw line or on field goals inside of 10 feet of the basket. He was 2-11 from outside 10 feet Saturday and came up empty on all nine of his three-point attempts. Only two other players in the last 20 postseasons have attempted at least nine trifectas and made none. Rashard Lewis was the last in 2008 and the other was John Starks, who famously went 0-11 in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals.
For all the trouble Dantley had maintaining tactical control over his squad in the series, he had a knack of boiling down complicated questions with plainspoken wisdom. After Jazz point guard Deron Williams shredded the Nuggets with a high pick-and-roll attack, Dantley was asked to evaluate his big men's pick-and-roll defense. Dantley thought about the question for a second, then rubbed his cheek before explaining that NBA big men were uniquely unsuited to defending the pick-and-roll. That's the whole point. That's the reason almost every team in the real runs a high pick-and-roll 60 or 70 times per game. And Dantley wasn't about to publicly kill his front court for not having the coordination or footwork to backpedal against one of the most capable point guards in the world.
A couple of months later, Vinny Del Negro emerged as a top candidate for the Los Angeles Clippers' head coaching vacancy. One of the criticisms commonly leveled at Del Negro was a lack of offensive creativity in Chicago. Naysayers pointed out that the Bulls ran a predictable series of middle pick-and-rolls for Derrick Rose and little else, but Del Negro's defenders would tell you that it would've been malpractice for him not to run a high screen for Rose almost every time downcourt. Since the Bulls had few other offensive assets on the floor, a 1-5 pick-and-roll for Rose was far and away the unit's best opportunity to score on a given possession, even though the big men for Chicago rolling to the hoop lacked offensive polish.
Maybe Del Negro's supporters have a point. Rely on the high pick-and-roll exclusively as Del Negro did, and you're obtuse. But ride it to success, the way Stan Van Gundy has in Orlando in recent seasons, and you're a genius. Few teams have gotten more mileage out of a high screen from its center for its point guard at the top of the floor -- or the 1-5 pick-and-roll -- than the Magic have with Jameer Nelson and Dwight Howard.
Using FastDraw, Eddy Rivera of Magic Basketball has diagramed some of Orlando's primary sets predicated on the 1-5 pick-and-roll, and has linked to a corresponding video for each play.
A suggestion: Watch each clip twice. On first viewing, take a look at the primary action -- how Nelson and Howard (and often Rashard Lewis with a staggered screen) initiate the screen-and-roll. But on the second viewing, watch what's happening off the ball, especially after the defense collapses on Nelson. That's what separates Orlando's execution from lesser teams. It's important to note that talent plays a role. For instance, Orlando has uncommonly good shooters spaced along the perimeter at the 2, 3 and 4 positions. But good teams, even in the absence of knockdown shooters from long distance, can still manufacture quality offense off the ball in these sets. It generally requires smart reads, something you see when Boston runs stuff up top for Rajon Rondo, or when San Antonio utilizes the high screen for its ball handlers.
Now that you've seen the offense in action, take a look at Sebastian Pruiti's manual at NBA Playbook on how to defend the pick-and-roll. Pruiti looks at traditional methods for defending the pick-and-roll -- hedging and switching. But the most interesting element in this primer focuses on Tom Thibodeau's aggressive tactic -- blitzing the point guard off the action, something more and more teams are doing. One NBA coach told me last season that the frenetic trap or "blueing" the screen (an attempt to get between the point guard and the pick man to force the point guard sideline) is really a NBA defense's only option against the league's young speedsters. "Penetration is what kills you in the half court," the coach said. "Keep the guy out of the paint and you have a fighting chance."
Sounds well and good, but a blitz leaves the back side of the defense vulnerable. They essentially have to zone up in a 3-on-4 scheme, something that requires heady defenders who know how to make smart decisions in a snap. Most NBA offenses can swing the ball around the floor in a flash, even against pressure. Unless there's a defender who can quickly rotate onto the open man or pick up the weak side cutter (which, in turn, means that another defender must rotate onto that defender's man), there's likely to be a breakdown.
As the Lakers and Celtics worked their way through the bracket last spring, it became increasingly clear that we don't pay enough attention to a player's skills as a team defender after the initial action (most frequently a high screen-and-roll). Here's where I believe guys like an aging Jason Kidd, Luol Deng, Andre Miller or Kyle Korver get short shrift. None of these players can be fairly regarded as a lockdown defender, but you have to watch a lot of film before you see them make an ill-advised decision late in a possession, long after the base defense has broken down.
Jim Rogash/NBAE/Getty Images
Could the Orlando Magic benefit from more modest expectations?
Unlike the Western Conference where the Lakers have reigned supreme over the past couple of seasons, the Eastern Conference regular-season landscape has been a relatively open space. Convincing arguments could be made in recent seasons for Boston, Cleveland and Orlando, and each of these three teams made at least one trip to the NBA Finals over the past four Junes.
The Miami Heat have changed all that. Of the 93 prognosticators who took part in ESPN.com's NBA Summer Forecast, 66 predicted the Heat to win the East.
Who's their most serious competition? That was a source of some debate, but three teams were projected to win at least 50 games, and picked to finish second in the East by at least one TrueHoop Network blogger. Those teams were Orlando, Boston and Chicago.
On Wednesday, we asked members of the TrueHoop Network to defend their No. 2 picks in the Western Conference, and invited a dissenting opinion from a fellow blogger.
Now, we look East:
The case for the Magic
Kyle Weidie (Truth About It)
After the Miami Heat, obviously, it will be the Orlando Magic battling for Eastern Conference supremacy ... in front of the Celtics, and definitely in front of the Bulls, Hawks and Bucks. Why you ask? Well, let's start with the depth. There's not much turnover from last season's 59-win team -- they added a more solid backup guard in Chris Duhon, along with veteran Quentin Richardson and rookie Daniel Orton, and really only lost Matt Barnes. Jameer Nelson continues to be a leader by hosting his teammates for workouts in Philadelphia. And don't forget that coach Stan Van Gundy signed a contract extension through 2012-13 (that constancy thing). Did I mention that Dwight Howard has been working with Hakeem Olajuwon this summer? The East has been warned. As Orlando continues to grow as a unit, while Miami tries to Frankenstein a three-headed monster and surrounding parts and Boston hires extra trainers to keep loose ligaments intact, best believe that the Magic will be in the picture to make the NBA Finals.
The case against the Magic
Carey Smith (Philadunkia)
It seems obvious that the East will be much tougher in 2010-11 with numerous teams having improved significantly this offseason. The Magic were not one of those teams because the additions of Chris Duhon and Quentin Richardson do not qualify as major upgrades. Additionally, the Magic were a very healthy team last season as their entire roster missed a total of only 63 games due to injury or illness. With the pounding Dwight Howard takes on a nightly basis, he will not be able to continue playing in all 82 games every season. Also the fountain of youth can last only so long for aging veterans like Vince Carter (75 games last year), Rashard Lewis (72), Jason Williams (82) and Quentin Richardson (76) who seem likely to miss more games than they did last season. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the Celtics laid down a defensive blueprint during the conference finals for how to beat Orlando. The NBA is a copycat league, so expect more teams to lock down the Magic's perimeter players and dare Dwight Howard to beat them. That's a tough task for even “Superman” to handle.
The case for the Celtics
Zach Harper (Cowbell Kingdom)
The Celtics got away with a lot of malaise and indifference for the greater good last season, only we didn't know it was going on at the time. And while the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference is much improved this season, there is still a huge disparity in team play between the Celtics and the next level down. They may struggle with Miami, Orlando and the top teams in the West during the regular season but I don't think they'll have a problem swinging down on the rest of the East. With nobody ready to jump up a level the Celtics can still get their rest and finish with one of the best records in the conference.
The case against the Celtics
Zach Lowe (Celtics Hub)
I'm a pessimist all around, so take my prediction of 49 wins with a small grain of salt and understand it is a prediction about the regular season alone. The Celtics won "only" 50 games last season before visibly turning up their intensity during the postseason and coming within a few minutes of the championship. What objective evidence do we have to suggest they will approach the 2011 season any differently than the 2010 season? The team is built for a run in May and June, not in February and March, and the Celtics likely care less about where they finish in the Eastern Conference standings than about entering the post-season healthy and with a team-wide understanding of Boston's principles on both sides of the ball. The signings of Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal make sense considering the absence of Kendrick Perkins and the problems the team had last season with rebounding and scoring in the post. But those signings also made an old team even older. Boston will play much of the regular season with a lack of urgency. Doc Rivers will limit minutes for the veteran players. Guys will get hurt and miss time here and there. These things will happen. Add it all up, and 49 wins is a reasonable, if low, prediction. No win total between 48 and 55 would be a surprise, but a win total of less than 16 in the playoffs might qualify as a disappointment.
The case for the Bulls
Henry Abbott (TrueHoop)
The Bulls were a halfway decent team with gimpy Derrick Rose, gimpy Luol Deng and gimpy Joakim Noah playing with a bunch of expiring contracts. Now those three return presumably healthy, at ages when they should be better than ever, coached by the guy who led the best defense in the NBA over the last three years, with some nontrivial new firepower. Carlos Boozer did not make the NBA by being taller or stronger than everybody else. He got there in no small part by having a killer work ethic and by being a real-deal adult. That's a wonderful example for this young team. I've always been a Ronnie Brewer fan. People think Omer Asik has real potential. C.J. Watson can play NBA basketball. Kurt Thomas doesn't hurt. And for a team that has needed shooting, Kyle Korver is a marvelous signing. Put it all together, and the Bulls have talented, impassioned players at the most important positions, a good portion of the Utah Jazz (Brewer, Boozer, Korver), and the most interesting new NBA coaching hire of the last few years. I'm feeling bullish.
The case against the Bulls
Jared Wade (8 points, 9 Seconds)
The Bulls had a fine offseason, and the acquisition of Carlos Boozer will give the team the low-post scorer it has been desperately searching for since, roughly, the Carter administration. Next to the defensively solid Joakim Noah, the always-perplexing Luol Deng and second-year forward Taj Gibson, Booz finally brings some stability to the frontcourt. But even with Derrick Rose presumably continuing to ascend toward elite status, the Bulls still have a long way to go to compete with Miami, Orlando and Boston. Even Atlanta's core is more proven, regardless of their ugly playoff exit last season, and the Bucks already play the type of defense that Tom Thibodeau is hoping he can get the Bulls to commit to. The Central Division is a cesspool outside of the Bulls and Bucks, so expect Chicago to win around 50 games — but don't expect much more than a second-round playoff exit.
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images
The Bulls would be smart to use these former Jazzmen to install the flex offense in Chicago.
The Utah Jazz feature one of the longest-tenured, most consistently successful offensive systems in the NBA. Jerry Sloan has been running the flex for a quarter of a century and despite the predictability of the scheme's early actions, the Jazz's tactical plan causes opponents fits. You know what's coming, but most nights you're powerless to stop it.
The effectiveness of the flex in Salt Lake City prompts the question: If it's so productive, why haven't more teams adopted it as their offensive blueprint?
The most common answer you get from coaches and scouts around the league goes something like this:
On paper, the system is artful and ingenious. But if you don't have the personnel to run the flex effectively, you're setting up your team for failure. You might be able to incorporate a few flex sets into your playbook, but installing the system as the foundation of the offense is trouble.
What kind of personnel are we talking about? What skills does a player need to have as part of his game to be an effective player in that system? The simplest way to define the qualities of a good flex player is the ability to multitask. In the flex, each player on the floor is a screener and a screenee, a passer and a cutter, a guy who can make plays in a variety of ways by instantaneously reading the defense. Ballstoppers and early-shot-clock freelancers need not apply.
This brings us to the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls.
Last season, the Bulls finished 28th in offensive efficiency. Over the past month, the Bulls have bolstered their roster with a collection of nice pieces, including Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer -- each of whom started the 2009-10 season as a veteran member of the Jazz. Whether it was their primary intention or a serendipitous unintended consequence of the frenetic free agent market, the Bulls have assembled a group that, with the exception of the point guard spot, is more Jazzy than anything Jerry Sloan will put on the court this fall.
In short, the Bulls have a tailor-made roster for a full-fledged flex attack:
- In Boozer and Joakim Noah, the Bulls' starting frontcourt tandem will feature two of the best passing big men in the game. Boozer is fluent in the flex, while Noah's game couldn't be more suited to achieving the same kind of expertise. The two big men in this system are tasked with passing the ball from the high post to cutters, but they're also required to set back picks, cross screens and baseline actions for shooters. Even more important, they should have the ability to come off pin-downs and drain those mid-range elbow jumpers Boozer has made a living off of in Utah. What about Noah, though? He's a better mid-range shooter than you think. His 43 percent clip from 16-23 feet puts him in the company of Chris Bosh, Tim Duncan and Brandon Roy.
- The Jazz incensed Deron Williams when they dealt Ronnie Brewer to Memphis in a cost-cutting deal at the trade deadline last February. Wesley Matthews and C.J. Miles assumed Brewer's role in Utah's offense on the wing. When the playoffs rolled around, Matthews and Miles each made huge plays down the stretch of crucial games in the Denver series -- mostly by reading the defense, making back door cuts and sealing the baseline. When Williams was asked about his young wings' smart plays, Williams responded on more than one occasion, "Those were Ronnie Brewer reads." Although Brewer isn't much of an outside shooter, he's a master at executing the counters that allow the flex to succeed even after the defense has taken away the first two or three options.
- Korver knows how to play the 3 in the flex, a position that requires knocking down shots from the wing, and working off the ball in the power swing sets. While many sharpshooting small forwards merely set up shop in the corner, the 3 in the flex is constantly in motion, looking to fill open space when the defense reacts to ball side and moving quickly to flare out along the arc when the opportunity presents itself. His sweet stroke aside, Korver doesn't get all that many shot attempts, but he more than compensates for that as an intelligent player who always seems to know where he's most useful.
- If ever there was an existing Bull who could benefit from the installation of the flex offense in Chicago, Luol Deng is the guy. Deng has never been a dynamic one-on-one perimeter player, something that's plagued him in the Bulls' stagnant offenses. Isolations simply aren't Deng's strength, but he's a selfless player, a very underrated passer and, most of all, money on the pin-down and the cut-and-seal. For the lithe, agile Deng, a flex system that maximizes his mobility and capacity to make reads could reinvent his floor game.
- What about Derrick Rose? Does asking him to orchestrate the flex offense at the point compromise his strengths? Not at all. As we've seen in Utah, there are more than enough opportunities to create early offense, both in transition and with the high screen-and-roll. Brewer, Deng and Noah can run the floor and fill the lanes with the best of them. And anyone who watched Williams and Boozer work up top early in the shot clock knows there are plenty of chances for Rose to get space and/or dish off the ball to his big men for easy jumpers, particularly the pick-and-pop with Boozer. When Mehmet Okur was healthy, Utah ran a set called "Double-C" -- similar to what Boston runs with Garnett and Perkins. Both big men set a high pick on either side of the point guard, giving Williams multiple options up top. Rose would flourish in this kind of scheme, especially since Boozer and Noah are master screeners, rollers and readers. Early offense aside, Rose's strength and power are two of his most underrated assets and can be exploited in the half court. Rose should take cues from Williams, another big guard who often makes his best plays coming off screens and brutalizing smaller guards in the post with Utah's "Power 1" set (similar to what Baron Davis does from the elbow when he's locked in). Defenses tend to be most successful against the flex when they're effectively denying high post entires. Rose's athleticism should allow him to execute counters to that denial by creating for himself (when necessary). And with the help of Brewer and Deng, he should also be able to find his wings as they cross beneath the hoop and put themselves in a position to go to work. Was Rose born for the flex? Maybe not. But with enough reps, Rose should be able to use his size and quickness off the ball to perform as both initiator and as an off-ball menace in a system that rewards versatility -- something Rose has in spades.
The Bulls' personnel offers Tom Thibodeau a unique opportunity to install and execute a dependable offensive system, one that takes full advantage of his roster's attributes. Three of his top six players know the flex inside and out from their days in Utah. Two others -- Noah and Deng -- embody the right instincts to blossom in the system. At first blush, Rose might not seem like a natural fit, but with some work, his versatile talents will transform him into a capable quarterback, especially when you consider the amount of help he'll have.
If the Bulls ultimately decide to adopt the flex as their primary game plan, some would call it an experiment. Given the confluence of talent and experience on their roster, they'd be crazy not to bank on it.
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Deron Williams: Too good to be an underdog?
SALT LAKE CITY -- When the Utah Jazz greet the media at their practice facility in Salt Lake City, each player (and the head coach) stakes out a familiar spot in the gym where he addresses the scrum. Andrei Kirilenko, Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews take questions in the middle of the court. Carlos Boozer fields questions along the far baseline beneath the basket. The peripatetic C.J. Miles roams freely, while Jerry Sloan stands stoically in front of the plastic purple bleachers. Once the camera crews from local affiliates are gathered, there will be a moment of deferential silence as the reporters make sure Sloan is ready, at which point he blurts out, "Whattaya got?"
Where can you find Deron Williams? The Jazz point guard is in the far corner of the gym, slouched on a training table leaning back against the wall. That's his spot, away from the busy flow of the gym. Williams had a reputation of being truculent with the media during his first couple of seasons, but now in his fifth year, he accepts the spotlight with a fairly polite tolerance, though he's still a somewhat reluctant participant. More than anything, he's still -- legs stretched out in front of him, head tilted back, a dozen voice recorders in his face. As he's peppered with questions, Williams barely moves from that position.
On the court, it's an entirely different story. Williams never stops moving. He's not hyperkinetic like Steve Nash or Chris Paul. It's a more orderly velocity, a good kind of reactive. Williams rarely lets the defense dictate where he's going, but he uses every piece of information to make snap decisions with an impressive change of speed. Where are the other nine guys on the floor? What does the system demand of my talents at this instant? Can I counter-program and get to the hole off the dribble?
The answer to each of these questions usually produces a foray into the paint, where the Jazz are getting anything they want against Denver thanks to Williams' orchestration of the offense. Williams is averaging 28.2 points and 11.6 assists in the series with a player efficiency rating (PER) of 28.19. He's the first player in NBA history to have five consecutive 20-point, 10-assist games within a single postseason series. Williams is both statistically and operatively the best player on the floor in this series, which prompts the question:
Despite the absence of Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur and the presence of an undrafted rookie and a project big man in the starting lineup, can a team with a supernova like Williams controlling the action truly be called an underdog?
When Okur went down, conventional wisdom deemed the Jazz a long shot, present company included. Even the Jazz's success in taking a 3-1 games lead headed back to Denver was framed as a triumph of discipline over combustion, the achievement of a cohesive team over a disparate collection of talent. After all, the Nuggets extended the Lakers to six games in a grueling conference finals last season, earning the mantel of the team most capable of dethroning the Lakers if the champs were to falter. Denver features Carmelo Anthony, one of the preeminent shot creators in the game. The Jazz? High I.Q. players, but no competition for the Nuggets' athletes.
Now that we've been living with this series for the better part of two weeks, the matchup has a different quality to it, in large part because of Williams' influence. Anthony has undoubtedly produced over the five games, but Williams has dominated. The execution of the Utah system held in such high regard isn't merely a product of whiteboard magic -- it's a direct result of Williams' leadership and court vision.
"He's as good as it gets,'' Nuggets point guard Chauncey Billups said at shootaround prior to Game 5 in Denver. "He can do everything. He really doesn't have any weaknesses. I think that's the ultimate compliment that you can pay to a player is to say that he doesn't have any weaknesses, and I think he's reached that point now.''
Williams doesn't merely ignite an effective transition or choreograph the Jazz's motion offense, he's also become a knockdown shooter from long distance, hitting at a 54.2 percent rate in the series from beyond the arc. He's also Utah's second-best option behind Carlos Boozer in the post, where he can score and wreak havoc with brilliant kickouts. In this series, he's doing stellar work off the ball and on the defensive end. But Williams' defining quality might be, more than any point guard in the league, his unwillingness to waste a possession.
Singling out Williams shouldn't discount the synchronicity carried out by each of the Jazz players in Sloan's offensive scheme, but the old construct of this series as a battle between a system and an individual talent is no longer relevant. The Jazz have their individual performer in Williams. They also have Boozer, the best big man in the series (something that was true before Nene went down with a sprained left knee), and reserve Paul Millsap, whose 24.08 PER ranks him 10th in the postseason among players who have logged more than 15 minutes per game.
Denver notched a much-needed victory at the Pepsi Center on Wednesday night, a feat it accomplished by moving the basketball and running a coherent offense for the first time this postseason. But in reassessing this series headed into Game 6 -- a possible clincher for Utah on its home court -- it's time to bury the idea that the Nuggets have considerably more talent than the Jazz. Denver might have a decisive edge in athleticism (less so now that Nene is out), but Williams' repertoire of skills should give us pause about the long odds originally assigned to Utah after Game 1.
It might spoil the storybook narrative, but we're now learning that Deron Williams is simply too good to be an underdog.
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What's the secret?
SALT LAKE CITY -- It's something you hear frequently when talking to people inside the Utah Jazz organization and opponents around the league:
Jerry Sloan has been running the same stuff for more than 20 years, yet most defenses seem powerless to stop it.
"You know flex in high school," Jazz point guard Deron Williams said last month. "Wisconsin ran the heck out of flex when I was in college. You play at any level, you're used to it."
The most basic description of the flex is a five-man motion offense that relies on a series of back screens, hard cuts and other off-ball actions. If the defense responds well to the initial actions, there are natural counters built into the system. Ever notice how Utah gets a disproportionate number of really good looks late in the shot clock? That's because Jazz players are so well-versed in what those late options are -- what Carlos Boozer referred to yesterday as "C, D, and E." C.J. Miles describes this feature well:
We’re making basketball plays -- plays made off screens or made off cuts. Maybe this time it’s not a back door cut this way. Or, if I set the screen, then the play should work because if they overplay the screen, there’s something that’s going to happen as a consequence to every reaction. If you trail Kyle Korver off a screen, then he’s going to make the shot. If you shoot the gap, then you throw the ball into the post. There’s always something that can be done off whatever the defense counters with.
Call it the Malcolm Gladwell theory or the Stockton-and-Malone maxim, but Sloan maintains that one of the reason the system has worked so well for so long in Utah is repetition:
You react to situations you’ve seen over and over again. That’s why we’re very repetitive in what we do and try to make it so guys can get an idea of what’s going on in the game instead of throwing them loose and letting them play and run all over the place. I think that teaches them how to take advantage of those situations.
Sloan doesn't champion structure for structure's sake. Rather, he advocates repetition as a means to achieve fluency. There are a bunch of teams that run elements of the flex around the league. Chicago's hasn't been terribly successful over the past couple of seasons, nor has New Jersey's (though both the Celtics and Spurs incorporate smart flex sets to get the ball to the wing). Jazz sniper Kyle Korver's feels, as Sloan does, that you have to go in whole hog with the flex to get the results the Jazz have:
It’s kind of like a full-court press. If you don’t believe in the press and you don’t go do it 100 percent, it’s never going to work. Most teams that run a flex will run it two or three times a game…Here, we know we’re going to run the flex a whole ton, and we know if we run it right, I know that I may not get the ball the first five times. But the sixth or seventh time, I know I will.
Since coming over from Philadelphia, Korver has completely bought in. He says that if he decides to coach, he'll fully implement the flex. Boozer also subscribes to the value of repetition in the team's mastery of the system:
We run things over and over and over again, so when we see it during the course of a game as it’s happening, we know what to do right away…Your reactions are quicker. And when your reactions are quicker, you usually have more success.
In some sense, the Jazz have to be fluent in the system. As both Korver and Boozer imply, every team in the league knows that the Jazz are going to set up in their 1-4, then go to work. Unlike Denver, which runs a very unstructured offense, Utah operates predictably -- at least in its early actions. The Jazz also don't have many guys who can create shots for themselves. So, as Boozer points out, unless their reactions are quick, the Jazz have the potential to stagnate on offense. Fortunately for them, they've worked through these scenarios a zillion times in both practice and live games. As Miles mentions above, the Jazz offense knows how to read every defensive response and has something ready to execute accordingly. Miles also attributes the success of the system to the relative stability of the Utah roster over the years:
Repetition is definitely a positive. You don’t see a lot of trades made. We’re a younger team, but we’ve been together for four years now. Everybody knowing each other’s games, knowing our offense so well, knowing where guys like to be.
With the exception of their cap-conscious exports this season, Utah doesn't swap players in and out of their organization very often. The Jazz build around a core group of young players -- often second-round picks and castoffs -- and invest a great deal of training and expertise in those players. It's one thing to run these sets over and over again to achieve full command of the offense, but quite another to do it with the same core of personnel.
Given the Jazz's success over the past two decades, it's surprising more organizations haven't committed to the flex and sought out players whose talents can be cultivated to maximize the system. Then again, it's not what you do, it's how you do it -- and, more often than not, who's doing it for you.
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What are the Nuggets going to do about this guy?
SALT LAKE CITY -- When Jazz center Mehmet Okur collapsed to the floor on Saturday night in Game 1 of Utah's series with Denver, the prevailing sentiment -- even among those with the highest reverence for what the Jazz do -- was that Utah was cooked. Already without Andrei Kirilenko in a series that demands an elite perimeter defender, the Jazz would now have to start an untested 23-year-old project at center and hope for the best. When the Jazz squeaked out a win in Game 2 at Denver, the improbable outcome produced a lot of head-scratching. How did the Nuggets lose on their home floor to a short-handed skeleton crew like the Jazz? You can attribute the improbability of the Jazz's victory in Game 2 to a number of factors, but the long and short of it is this:
The Nuggets are a very suspect defensive squad. That's been true all season and for the first two games of this series.
Among playoff teams in both conferences, only Phoenix gave up more points per 100 possessions in the regular season. The Nuggets have some very bad habits -- ball-watching, needless gambling and a tendency to allow Utah's defenders to move off the ball to the rim. Yesterday, the Nuggets promised to get more physical with the Jazz, but bodily presence doesn't seem to be the issue on the defensive end nearly so much as court awareness. Video of the first two games of the series reveals that the Nuggets make a lot of bad choices. They're consistently one step behind a Jazz offense that loves to make defenses pay for iffy decisions and overcommitment. You see a lot of confusion and miscommunication on Denver's part, and there isn't a team in the league that understands how to exploit a harried defense better than Utah.
No answer for Deron Williams
Carmelo Anthony's 42-point performance on Saturday night was the dominant theme between Games 1 and 2. Utah's young wing defenders were pressed to respond: What were they going to do to contain Anthony? Denver won't keep Williams from racking up points and assists any more than Utah will be able to stop Anthony from scoring. But just as the Jazz were able to make Anthony a less efficient producer in Game 2, Denver must figure out how they're going to slow Williams as both scorer and playmaker.
Williams has scored 59 points in the first two games of the series and he's done much of that damage in early offense situations. He's using his speed to take Chauncey Billups and Arron Afflalo off the dribble and his strength to beat Lawson off the bounce. There's not a lot the Nuggets' guards can do to keep Williams from bullying his way to the hole, but it's incumbent on Denver's back line to get down the floor and in position to close that seam. Right now, the Nuggets' inability to do that is costing their backcourt defenders a bunch of fouls, and allowing Williams to make a living at the stripe, where he's notched 25 of his 59 points.
In addition to breaking down Denver's defense off the dribble, Williams is succeeding as a jump shooter. He's getting a surprising number of clean looks from the floor because Denver isn't reading screens by Utah's big men. Afflalo, in particular, has repeatedly yielded open space to Williams by either not anticipating or running beneath screens up top. If that's not enough, the Jazz are regularly running plays with Williams as a primary post option. Yikes! They're particularly successful with this when Lawson is in the game, but Williams has tested Billups down low as well.
Dealing with Williams will continue to be a tricky exercise for the Nuggets. First and foremost, they have to be prepared for him to attack. But they can't afford to be burned by his ability to make plays off a collapsing defense either. Denver did a fairly good job of containing Williams the Scorer in the fourth quarter of Game 2 -- but that opened up all kinds of opportunities for Williams the Facilitator to beat them.
Utah's cutters are having a field day
Carlos Boozer aptly describes one of the central tenets of Utah's offensive philosophy. "If somebody has the ball, don't just stand there and let you defender help out on the guy who has the ball -- cut and make them be occupied." Boozer said. "Option A and B defenders are always going to be there, so you have to go to C, D and E."
C, D and E have been killing Denver during the first two games. Much of that damage originates from the pick-and-roll that Williams executes so fluently. Once that high action with Boozer or Paul Millsap challenges the Nuggets' defense, swaths of open space are opening up for the supporting cast. Denver's other defenders are so desperate to stop a penetrating Williams or a rolling Boozer/Millsap, that they forget about, say, C.J. Miles. On consecutive Jazz possessions in the final four minutes of Game 2, Anthony leaves C.J. Miles on the wing to shade on Williams off a pick-and-roll -- and twice Miles dives to the rim completely unmanned for an easy seal and slam off a pass from Williams.
"It was just pick-and-rolls and C.J. made good reads," Williams said. "It was a Ronnie Brewer read ... He used to run that baseline. It was just a good adjustment by C.J. I try to tell those guys that a lot of the tension is on me, so when you see the back of a guy's head, just cut to the basket. I'll find you."
Boozer's "C, D and E" declaration might be a little too generous, because on many occasions Denver has done a lousy job of covering Option A. Take the possession at the 2:40 mark of the fourth quarter on Monday night with the Jazz trailing by three. Williams brings the ball downcourt and executes the oldest play in the book, a simple UCLA cut that completely baffles Denver. He dishes the ball off to Kyle Korver on the left wing, then dives to the basket, rubbing Chauncey Billups off Paul Millsap at the left elbow. With ease, Williams dives beneath Kenyon Martin, where Korver delivers him an easy lob pass for a layup.
Until Denver's defenders consider that Utah can read defenses better than any unit in the NBA, they're going to continue to get burned by the Jazz's counters.
Nugget defenders are doing a poor job off the ball
Some credit is due to Williams' capacity to command the full attention of all five defenders when the ball is in his hands, but good NBA defenses know how to multitask. Denver's doesn't.
In Game 2, there weren't bigger beneficiaries of these lapses than Korver and Miles. Both were able to find open looks on Utah's basic flex action that frees up the Jazz wingmen for jumpers. More times than not, Denver simply falls asleep off the ball. Korver went 5-for-7 from the field on Monday night. Though his big 3-pointer to vault the Jazz into the lead is the most YouTubable moment of the series, we shouldn't forget about his sequence of three huge jumpers in the final 1:15 of the third quarter that helps turn back a strong run by Denver.
"On the down screens, they were chasing me in Game 1," Korver said. "In the second game, they were cutting over the top, so I was just flaring out to the corner. It's just a matter of reading how they're going to guard me."
With the aid of strong screens from Utah's big men, Korver is able to pop out to open space on the perimeter. Korver's release is so quick that even a slight delay by a defender getting around those picks is fatal. If you want to understand how Jerry Sloan can get away with putting a lineup on the floor of Ronnie Price, Kyle Korver, Othyus Jeffers, Paul Millsap and Kosta Koufos, it's because each of these guys knows his function in such a scheme. In the case of the last of Korver's three jumpers, Koufos plays the role of traffic cone on the left block. First Jeffers curls and clears, then Korver runs Afflalo directly into Koufos before Price delivers the ball on target to Korver for the shot.
Everything in its right place.
Denver is allowing these sorts of actions to go off without a hitch on possession after possession, even though the Jazz have few players outside Williams who can beat them in isolation. Crafty defensive squads force Utah to play one-on-one basketball, but so far the Nuggets haven't.
From afar, the Nuggets appear to be favorites over the Jazz going forward, and nothing about Denver's Game 2 meltdown changes that. Yet the closer you look at the early results of the series, the more apparent it is that until the Nuggets makes a conscious effort to defend, the Jazz are very much alive, irrespective of how many healthy bodies are on their roster. Utah's system was designed to maximize efficiency against an easily confused defense. Denver hasn't demonstrated that it has the wherewithal to match Utah's guile.
It's possible the Nuggets can ride their offense to a series victory without putting in the work on the defensive end. But do they really want to take that chance?
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Game 2 was a huge pick-me-up for the guys from Salt Lake.
DENVER -- A beleaguered Utah Jazz team entered Game 2 in Denver with a litany of worries. In Game 1, they lost their starting center, Mehmet Okur, for the season with a torn left achilles tendon. That void thrust the very green Kyrylo Fesenko into the starting lineup for Monday night’s Game 2. Meanwhile, the Jazz were already without their best defender, Andrei Kirilenko, whose absence put excessive pressure on his understudies, C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews. Carmelo Anthony torched the young tandem for 42 points in Game 1, and arrived on Monday night hungry for more.
Undermanned on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor, the Jazz had only one saving grace -- their lethal screen-and-roll combination of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. The pair orchestrated a clinic on Monday night, baffling the Nuggets’ defense with their two-man waltz, with Deron Williams as the lead. Williams finished with 33 points and 14 assists, vaulting the Jazz to an improbable and frenetic 114-111 win over the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center, tying the series at one game apiece.
"This is a big win for us," Williams said. "Nobody was really giving us a shot. We just wanted to come out here and put that to rest. We feel like we still have a great team that can compete and we're really proud of how we played and battled tonight."
Williams had a series of offensive imperatives on Monday night, and he succeeded at every one of them. First, he attacked Denver off the dribble every chance he got, looking for either a seam to the basket, or contact against a collapsing Nugget defender. Williams made his way to the stripe for 18 attempts, draining 16. Second, Williams engaged Boozer -- and occasionally Paul Millsap -- with their patented pick-and-roll. Finally, if Williams was unable to find a path to the rim or his post option was covered, he empowered weak side threats like Kyle Korver and C.J. Miles by executing the Jazz’s offensive system to perfection. Korver scored 13 points, while Miles had another solid offensive performance with 17 points.
"[Williams] set the tone from the beginning," Boozer said. "He came out aggressive, got to the basket, hit shots -- jumper after jumper -- then got to the free throw line ... It made the job easier on the rest of us because he was playing so well offensively."
Williams’ most exquisite play came out of a timeout with 1:43 remaining in the game and the Jazz trailing 106-105. At the top of the circle, Williams broke down Chauncey Billups off the bounce. When the Nuggets’ wing defenders collapsed on him in the paint, Williams threw a dart to Korver in the right corner, where the sharpshooter drained a 3-pointer to put Utah on top 108-106, a lead that they would never relinquish.
"I was kind of open a lot in the fourth quarter," Korver said. "Never wide open, but kind of open and I kept telling myself, 'Be ready.'"
Utah was open a lot in the first half. The Jazz shot a blistering 73.3 percent in the first quarter, and 67.7 percent overall before halftime. In addition to Williams' proficiency from the outside, Boozer killed Denver both rolling to the basket and by flashing to the top of the circle, where he drained a series of high-arching shots during a 17-3 Utah run to close the first half. Boozer scored 20 points on the night.
Leading 63-51 at intermission, the Jazz had to sustain a furious 14-0 rally by the Nuggets in the third quarter. The Nuggets combined a sequence of strong stands on the defensive end and aggressive ball pressure to fuel their comeback. The Jazz gave the Nuggets a hand by putting them in the penalty at the 9:18 mark of the period.
"We know who they are," Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan said when asked about Denver's rally. "It's not a secret. They're a terrific team -- and they can score. They can really score easily."
Both Denver and Utah are notoriously foul-prone and that held true Monday night, as the teams combined for 91 free throw attempts. In total, there were 73 successful free throws converted to 71 made shots from the floor.
Utah regained control of the game for a stretch at the end of the third quarter behind three Korver jumpers and three pairs of free throws, but would have to withstand another run by Denver in the fourth quarter. A turnover and a blocked shot on consecutive Utah possessions ignited the Nuggets' break in the opening minutes of the period. Billups lobbed a pass on the break over the Utah transition defense to Nene for an easy slam. Then Smith collected his block of Williams' layup attempt and found Billups downcourt for a spot-up 3-pointer to give Denver its first lead of the second half at 92-91.
The game's final nine minutes were a back-and-forth affair. Each team pounded the ball inside as the interior defenses disintegrated on both ends. Utah spread the wealth as Williams compiled five assists over the final stretch, while Denver put the ball into Anthony's hands and let him attack the Jazz inside. In the run-up to Monday night’s game, Utah vowed to match Denver’s prolific offense with a more rugged brand of physicality. Anthony, in particular, was able to roam around the floor relatively untouched in Game 1. Utah’s defenders clearly adjusted their strategy on Anthony. As advertised, Miles and Matthews bodied up on him, invading Anthony's space by playing right on his hip.
"They tried to force me more to go to the basket," Anthony said. "They tried to jam me a little bit."
That strategy can be seen if you examine Anthony's shot chart. He finished the night with 32 points, but he converted only 9 of his 25 attempts from the field – every one of those nine in the immediate basket area. Like Williams, Anthony took advantage of a tightly-officiated contest, earning 15 free throw attempts of his own. For Jazz's part, they were relatively satisfied. Utah appreciates that stopping Anthony from scoring is an impossibility. The goal for Miles and Matthews coming into Monday night's game was to frustrate Anthony and take him out of his comfort zone. Mission accomplished on both counts.
"They did great" Boozer said of Miles and Matthews. "They set the tone by being a little more physical with [Anthony] when he crossed over half court."
The Nuggets were whistled for 37 fouls -- a new record for a Jazz playoff opponent. Throughout the game, Denver was demonstratively upset with the officiating, though the free throw disparity favored Utah by only a 47-44 margin. The Nuggets' frustration was palpable and the excess emotion might have been detrimental to their cause.
"We talked about trying to get under their skin a little bit," Williams said. "We wanted to be physical with them from the start of the game, make guys have to work a little harder for their points. I think we did a good job of that tonight."
Denver will have a hard time erasing the memory of the game's closing minutes, when they led the Jazz by three points inside of three minutes. In addition to a missed Billups free throw with 53 second left, there were two offensive fouls -- one each by Billups and Anthony -- along with two additional miscues by Anthony. The first occurred when he brought the ball low on a drive to the basket, ultimately getting stripped and turning it over to Utah. The second mistake came with 25 seconds left with the Nuggets trailing by a single point. Anthony decided to pressure Miles aggressively in the backcourt, and picked up his sixth foul in the process.
"We'll take all those," Williams said of Denver's blunders.
The Jazz's resilience stems from the confidence that if they implement their program with intelligence and poise, they can succeed, even with key personnel in street clothes. Utah's belief in that system is a primary reason why the Jazz have tallied only one losing season in Sloan's 22-year tenure. Even with Okur and Kirilenko sidelined, Utah's offensive schemes hummed with a familiar precision on Monday night. If anything, the injuries seemed to strengthen the Jazz's resolve.
"Their team is a wounded team," Billups said. "They came out and took care of business."
Cornered and bloodied, the Jazz mimicked the Trail Blazers and wrested home court advantage from an ostensibly superior opponent with more firepower. The wounded animal bit back.
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
The Hoop Doctors have unearthed 10 interesting facts while poring over data from the 2008-09 season. Among the findings:
Troy Murphy was assisted on 100% of his 3-pointers made finishing with 161, which was 12th best in the NBA. That helps explain how he finished 3rd in 3-point shooting percentage at 45.0%, even though he is a 6-11 forward/center.
Troy Murphy: On the receiving end 100 percent of the time.
(Photo by Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
This raised some eyebrows. As Celtics Hub's Zach Lowe e-mailed, "Every single one of Troy Murphy's 161 threes had an assist attached to it? Every one? There wasn't one instance when an assist wasn't deserved?"
In the service of truth-squadding, I cued up Murphy's oeuvre of 3-pointers from last season.
You know what?
Among the dozens of 3s, there isn't a single shot that doesn't warrant a dime, even if you subscribe to the strictest definition of assist.
Murphy gets his 3-point attempts in a variety of ways -- almost always near the top of the arc. He's particularly lethal in transition, which makes sense when you consider that the Pacers were the third-ranked squad last season in pace. Murphy is especially adept at trailing the ball handler on the break. As T.J. Ford or Jarrett Jack penetrates into the lane against the backpedaling defense, Murphy will fill the void in their tracks. Ford or Jack will then kick it out to the trailing Murphy, who hits. At other times in transition, he merely spots up where his teammates know to find him.
In the half court, Murphy knows how to position himself for a clean pass from the post player. As the defense collapses down low on the big man, Murphy will shift along the arc to create the easiest possible pass out of the post. Also in the half court, Murphy gets a bundle of 3-point attempts on the simple pick-and-pop out on the perimeter. Teams who trap Ford or Jack on that action repeatedly pay, as Murphy launches before the defensive rotation arrives.
Murphy wasn't the only sniper to be assisted on 100 percent of his 3-pointers. According to 82games.com, the list includes Matt Bonner, Mehmet Okur, Kyle Korver and Antawn Jamison.
Players on the other end of the spectrum? Dwyane Wade (29 percent of 3-pointers assisted), LeBron James (36 percent) and Steve Nash (42 percent) -- each of whom can be characterized as a guy who doesn't need a permission slip to shoot the ball.