Why defense is so hard to analyze

Updated: December 18, 2013, 12:56 PM ET
By David Thorpe | ESPN Insider

As we discussed in our breakdown of the Miami Heat's and Indiana Pacers' defenses, analyzing elite defense can be difficult. Even for coaches with decades of experience and instruction, it is difficult because there are so many moving parts, individual talents and split-second decisions.

Indeed, Indiana resembles the Spurs more so than any other NBA team. The Pacers are pragmatic in their plan and close to flawless in their execution. In previous years, the Tom Thibodeau-constructed defenses of the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls were very similar.

This one particular play in Monday night's matchup between the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers illustrates just how difficult analyzing complex defense can be. Let's break it down:

Chris Paul enters the ball to Blake Griffin in the right pinch post, as Jamal Crawford sets a back screen for Jared Dudley on the other side of the floor just inside of the pinch post. Dudley was initially defended by Kawhi Leonard, but Danny Green switched onto him after the screen was set by Crawford, locking in behind him as he rolled toward the rim. He would have been open, but Tim Duncan, who was near the pinch post defending DeAndre Jordan, left Jordan to "show" in the passing lane to Dudley so as to inhibit a pass attempt.

After the screen, Dudley cleared to the right corner and Jordan moved to the left block as Griffin passed to Crawford releasing from his back screen to the left side of the key, behind the 3-point line. Griffin followed his pass to Crawford to set a screen, which he did with 11 seconds left on the shot clock, as Jordan rolled to the right block.

Leonard followed Crawford over the Griffin ball screen while Tiago Splitter stayed at the free throw line, ready to help on Crawford if he kept driving; Duncan opened up in the middle of the lane to protect it from a Crawford drive off the screen, as on the other side both Green and Tony Parker (guarding Paul) were inches away from the paint as well, in position to help the drive or recover to their shooters.

Crawford didn't drive, throwing the ball to Griffin, who popped to about 2 feet left and diagonal to the left elbow, an area from which he makes about 25 percent of his shots (which is why Splitter stayed in the middle; a Crawford drive is more of a threat than a Griffin jumper from that spot). Griffin quickly threw the ball to Dudley in the right corner, who was closed out by Green and then received a ball screen from Jordan with seven seconds on the clock. Duncan stayed home on the right block for a moment before showing hard to Dudley and contesting a potential jumper, as Green switched to Jordan back inside.

Dudley did not shoot, thanks to Duncan's efforts, and instead threw the ball out to Crawford deep behind the 3-point line above the free throw line extended. Griffin screened Leonard, who had been near the paint ready to help on the Dudley-Jordan ball screen, as he recovered toward Crawford, who was ready to catch and shoot. The screen was effective and Crawford got an uncontested but very deep 3 and airballed it, which Green rebounded after blocking out Jordan.

As this play illustrates, there are so many moving parts and actions that make playing defense -- and breaking it down -- tougher than most fans and media understand. And this was only one play. That's why those who can execute it at an elite level, such as Indiana and Miami, stand the greatest chances of winning the NBA title.

Screen shots from Synergy Sports Technologies provided by Amin Elhassan.

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