When good defense goes bad: How a mostly positive defensive sequence late against Phoenix broke down


Note: Everyone welcome Jakob Eich back for another season. Jakob will once again be diagramming and breaking down successful and not so successful plays by the Pistons this season. — P.H.

In close games small mistakes can have big consequences. Detroit was in one such close game on Friday against the Phoenix Suns. After trailing throughout the entire second half ,the team managed to mount a comeback and reached striking distance with less than a minute to go. After a great play that saw two of the probable future franchise leaders of this team, Brandon Knight and Greg Monroe, run a pick-and-roll, the team was only down three points with :21 seconds left. Most coaches would foul in this situation, but Lawrence Frank chose a different path and tried a full-court zone pressure defense. It almost worked as the Suns barely escaped an 8-second violation. Unfortunately, the Suns’ P. J. Tucker got an easy lay-up and Phoenix the win. Here’s a look:

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Marcin Gortat was the inbounder on this play, when Detroit set the zone pressure up quickly. It is great to see that this young team is capable of using this weapon now because of their speed and athleticism. To me it is great coaching by Frank, because this was a decision made on the fly depending on whether the team scored or not. The ability to tell his team to use this strategy is a clear sign of progress when it comes to basketball IQ. Anyway, Knight is playing deny on Goran Dragic, Monroe is lurking at the free throw line, and Kyle Singler is covering Shannon Brown. At this point, Phoenix’ only ball-handling option is Dragic, because Luis Scola and Gortat cannot be trusted bringing the ball up the court under pressure. The Suns’ coaching staff was surprised by Detroit’s strategy. They clearly wanted to have the best free throw shooters on the court in an attempt of anticipating the Pistons’ plan of fouling after a score.

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So Dragic is able to catch the ball and commences his dribble. He is in a one on one situation with Knight, a better athlete. What you want to do in this situation is to turn the ball-handler. This means you stay in front of him, so he has to switch directions in order to not go out-of bounds. Dragic does not use Scola’s screen, because he is afraid of a trap by Singler.

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A faster point guard than Dragic (e. g.  Bledsoe, Westbrook) would run right past Knight, but Dragic couldn’t get by. This enables Knight to make him turn a second time. Now Dragic is under time pressure, he has only covered half the way, and has five seconds left to make a decision.

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Dragic spins and gets a hard double-team by Knight and Singler which causes him to pick up his dribble. This is usually a death sentence for a point guard. Normally the Suns would have to use a timeout or lose the ball. Phoenix had two timeouts left and could easily have called one to avoid a turnover. Nevertheless, Dragic still could have thrown the ball away if he had not found a way out. Detroit has all players covered, Gortat is too close to Dragic, Tayshaun Prince covers Brown (the only other competent ball-handler) plus Prince is close enough to bother the slow Scola. But if you have noticed, there are only four Phoenix players in the picture, the fifth, P. J. Tucker, is all the way at Detroit’s baseline. Detroit’s fifth player, Jason Maxiell, should be at Detroit’s free throw line to make this a very risky pass. Instead he makes a common mistake. He is watching the situation closely (this is not a mistake) and subconsciously moves 10 feet toward the action. Players tend to do that, Maxiell is a veteran though and I would expect him to stick to his assignment.

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This gives Goran Dragic the best option available. He throws a very long pass down the court. Maxiell realizes his mistake immediately and dashes to the baseline. As you can see, when Tucker catches the ball, Maxiell is still only at the free throw line and has no chance of recovering. Tucker makes the easy layup, Phoenix goes up 91-86 and Detroit eventually loses the game.

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So what positive is there to take from the play then? Well, for starters, Knight has great feet, long arms, and he is obviously learning how to make more of an impact defensively. The team defense, with the exception of Maxiell, was outstanding in this instance. It is unfortunate they were unable to create another opportunity to tie the game. The team is getting closer and closer, better and better, and much more fun to watch.

Tags: Brandon Knight Greg Monroe Jason Maxiell Kyle Singler Lawrence Frank Tayshaun Prince