Welcome to The Big Three, where each Friday we reconvene to take a snapshot of three happenings from the previous week in NBA basketball.
This week we’ll cover the importance of footwork and positioning on defense, a new 3-on-3 league for retired NBA players that could take off, and an aptly-named Play of the Week from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Let’s get started!
- Happy Feet
There are few things more important than footwork for an elite perimeter defender in the NBA. How you position yourself and how you move in harmony with the guy you’re trying to stop is just as important as how high you can jump or how long your arms are, and the very best defenders are the guys who combine strengths in both areas.
Wesley Matthews hasn’t been the same player in all aspects of the game since an Achilles tear back in 2015, but no injury could take away his smarts or ability to leverage the physical skills he does still have. He showed it on Tuesday night with a big play to seal a one-point Dallas win, one that will look familiar if you’ve watched many NBA highlights this week:
Beyond the obvious here – he shut down All-Star Damian Lillard, one of the game’s premier scorers, with a win on the line – let’s look at what made Matthews’ play so special here.
First off, notice that throughout the entire play, Matthews is making a concerted effort to keep Lillard away from the middle of the floor. This is a common defensive tactic in the NBA, whether it’s defending the pick-and-roll or in other situations – the middle of the floor is where the most dangerous offensive plays are often conceived. There’s more room to see the floor and pass from better angles, and you’re obviously in a more direct line to the rim.
In our first still, note that Matthews is stunted toward the middle of the floor, even all the way out at halfcourt. No matter what, even if Lillard has a bit of room to open up some space on the sideline, Matthews isn’t letting him get to the middle:
Lillard tries again, and Matthews rebuffs him again.
Finally, Lillard does take the bait and go to his right, or the sideline. Ed Davis also comes up to set a pick as he’s doing so, and his man, Dwight Powell, comes up to help contain.
This is where we see another benefit of Matthews’ push to keep Lillard out of the middle of the floor. Davis isn’t a shooter at all, and this allows Powell to hang off him and help contain Lillard within an “Ice” scheme – a pick-and-roll defense meant to keep the ball-handler to the sideline while his defender (Matthews in this case) stays between him and the roll man. In this situation, Dallas is happily allowing Lillard to throw the bail-out pass to Davis if he chooses. The Mavs Ice Davis’ pick to perfection:
Lillard is out of options now, and the clock is running low. He tries one more time to get to the middle, but with both Matthews and Powell now containing him, that’s not going to happen.
Finally, Lillard is forced to launch a long triple – and even here, Matthews uses perfect positioning to get his hand right in Dame’s grill without ever putting himself at risk of fouling.
As you watch the clip again, note the speed with which Matthews moves his feet and re-positions himself to keep that “no middle” philosophy strong. It’s this kind of savvy and exact knowledge of a team’s defensive scheme that can separate good defenders from great ones.
- 3-on-3 Madness?
Ever wish you could see some of your favorite retired NBA players hoop just a little bit more? Ever wish it would be in a fun format like 3-on-3 instead of the usual NBA game? Best yet, ever wish you’d have both these things plus more helpings of Ice Cube than you could have ever possibly imagined in this conversation?
It’s your lucky day, it seems. The rap mogul is heavily involved in a new start-up 3-on-3 tour, which will feature retired NBA players and run during the summer.
Guys like Kenyon Martin, Stephen Jackson, Jermaine O’Neal, Rashard Lewis and Chauncey Billups have already committed, and a major NBPA official (Roger Mason Jr.) is already jumping ship to join the new venture.
The league will be called the BIG3. We’re still waiting on more details, but this could be a new summer sensation for basketball-starved NBA fans.
- Play of the Week
This week’s highlighted play is another we’ll use to show off a fun NBA set that many teams use – some better than others, of course. It’s got a fun name, too: Elevator Doors.
We’re talking the kind of elevators that have two doors closing from the outside in to the middle, not those silly ones that just use one door. Who needs those elevators, anyway? Not NBA teams.
Elevator door is a very simple set, for the most part. Let’s see if you can spot it for rising Thunder youngster Alex Abrines the other night:
Did you catch it? That’s okay if not. Let’s look at the first still, where we see OKC’s two big men on the floor, Enes Kanter and Joffrey Lauvergne, positioned a few feet apart up near the top of the key. Abrines is in the paint, working to break free of his man.
(Happy Holidays, everyone!)
In the next instant, both Thunder big men step down to the foul line, and get a little closer together. Abrines breaks free and runs up toward them.
As Abrines is sliding between Kanter and Lauvergne, notice how they close together almost like – wait for it – elevator doors. The goal is for their teammate, Abrines, to slither through right as the metaphorical doors are closing, so that his defender will consequently slam into the doors and have nowhere to go.
The Thunder time this one to perfection, and the doors are shut the moment Abrines gets through. His man, E’Twaun Moore, slams right into Kanter and Lauvergne.
Terrence Jones (#9 in red) is late reacting here, and his contest only starts from too far away as Abrines is going up. This sort of contest isn’t bothering too many NBA shooters, even if his hand does get in Abrines’ face briefly right as the shot is leaving his hands.
Elevator doors isn’t that complex a set, and a prepared defense can usually stop it – especially if one or both big men closing the doors aren’t necessarily immediate threats with the ball. But it’s a fantastic set that many coaches pull out every once in a while as a surprise; if you aren’t expecting it, it looks very different from a lot of normal NBA sets and can really turn a defense around. It can never be a staple of an offense necessarily, but it’s a smart set to bust out every now and then.
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