Perhaps my favorite undervalued nugget about NBA basketball is the artistry of a well executed out of bounds play with the game on the line. Brad Stevens is regarded as a wizard of this practice, scribbling gold whenever the Celtics are in need of a bucket during a critical point of a game. It is easy to decipher the good coaches from the mediocre based on these moments, as the best will shine and the others will leave a viewer scratching their head.
What exactly did I just witness?
Portland’s Terry Stotts is another renowned whiteboard maestro, piercing the hearts of opponents (including the Suns) with doses unpredictability and misdirection to propel his team towards a victory:
Stotts masterfully has Allen Crabbe (a sniper from deep) beeline his way across the baseline to occupy the attention of his man. Both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are wheeling their way around Meyers Leonard, with McCollum acting as the appetizer to Leonard’s screen sandwich on poor Emmanuel Mudiay. Since Leonard is the rare seven-footer capable of hitting an open three, Kenneth Faried must stay within arm’s length, thus leaving the painted area undeterred. Two points.
Portland was placed into a similar scenario the other night in Phoenix and although the outcome was the same, see if you can notice a difference in the process:
Once again, Crabbe snakes his way across the baseline. If T.J. Warren does not honor that action, then Crabbe will have an open look -- not the best fate for any defense. Lillard and McCollum run their wheel around Leonard, but Eric Bledsoe -- appearing ready for this action — stifles Lillard’s cut to the rim. With the first action taken away, Leonard goes on to set a screen for McCollum, forcing his man (P.J. Tucker) to jump out and prevent an open look.
With Tyson Chandler, Tucker, and Knight fighting outside of the three-point line and Warren airtight on Crabbe in the corner, the only man in semi-position to defend the rim is Bledsoe. But with Lillard circling his way back to the arc, Bledsoe has trail his path, leaving nothing but open space for Leonard in the paint. The steps to getting there were different, but the outcome was the same: two points for Portland.
The beauty of this play is that every movement has an impact on the manipulation of the defense. Too often coaches will halt movement and clear the way for a “star” player to take a contested jumper, justifying the call with wanting to go down with “their man.” All hail Coach Stotts.
Much like the Blazers, the Suns have found themselves playing within some high leverage circumstances through the first six games of the young season, putting Coach Watson’s late-game coaching chops on blast. So far, he has hung tough, and drawn up some beauty of his own to put his players in a position to succeed.
Watson loves to stretch the defense by placing one of his guards in or near the back court, a tactic that I’ve seen Stevens and others use in the past.
As long as the guard is an outside threat, defenders are forced to cover a maximum amount of space while leaving room for other parts of the court to be attacked. Chip Kelly and other football coaches have made a living by deploying similar spatial concepts, and it is neat to see NBA coaches adopt their own versions of that strategy. Bledsoe doesn’t necessarily slice into the lane here, but he had enough room to throw up the game winner because of the spacing provided by Watson’s playing of the chess pieces.
Friday night against the Pelicans provided Watson two more opportunities to pen the whiteboard, and he did not disappoint.
Bledsoe is so far in the back court that he cannot be seen in the play, and the crossing action off of Chandler’s screen between Warren and Devin Booker is a tall order for a defense to contend with. Warren is the obvious first option if Chandler screens his man well enough, but when that fails, Booker darts through an open crack and Chandler is able to get just enough of his man to spring him towards an open look.
Hindsight tells us that Anthony Davis should have ditched Chandler — an offensive zero if he is not close to the rim — and contended Booker, but that is a lot to ask in such a tiny window of time. It is not instinctual to leave your man like that.
With the Suns down one late in overtime, Watson was presented with a second opportunity to draw up some magic for his team.
Rather than Bledsoe resume his perch in the back court from the outset, Watson sends him streaking through the middle of the court to jump start the action while giving the defense some variation. The spatial design of the play combined with some questionable positioning from the Pelicans gave way to an easy lay in for Warren.
Even after watching this play back about ten times or so, I cannot figure out the purpose of Davis’ positioning. I guess he is shadowing the corner because that is where the Suns torched them on the first example, but wouldn’t you want Davis’ alien arms wreaking havoc on the inbounder or protecting the basket? Solomon Hill’s aggressive ball denial opens the door for Warren to plant and spin towards the rim, giving me immediate flashbacks to when LeBron James beat the Pacers on a lay in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The positioning of the overplays were different, but it goes to show that you would much rather have a player catch a pass cleanly, dosey-do on the outside, and take a contested jumper than deny the pass and provide an avenue for a driver to gain some steam towards the rim.
The Suns were fortunate for the Pelicans’ defensive blunders in that instance, but Watson has fared well in critical situations thus far. That is the marking of a good coach.