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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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


  • Nov 4, 201212:37 pm
    by ray


    Thats Coaching… also with 21 seconds…we could have turned that into a ft shooting game…. all they had to do was miss one…

  • Nov 4, 20122:18 pm
    by Jakob Eich


    They would have to miss two, otherwise it still would have been a two possession game. Also, normally you can pressure and still make it a FT shooting game, you just cannot give away such an easy lay-up. If we foul with 15 seconds left we still get two shots up so I like this strategy a lot. I disagree on the coaching. It is Maxiell’s mistake to forget the man in his back, and started walking away.

  • Nov 4, 20122:34 pm
    by Brendon Crew


    My question was why we passed to Knight when Singler was wide open in the corner and 2-2 that night for 3 pointers.

  • Nov 4, 20125:10 pm
    by frankie d


    yep, it is max’s mental error.  
    however, the coach has to make certain each player knows, understands and executes his on-court duties.  if he doesn’t, it’s the coach’s responsibility, also.
    and if he thinks that a particular player is not up to the task of remembering his role, he should find another player to fill that role.
    i do think that max is primarily responsible, however.  when you line people up for blame, he’s first in line.
    the thing that makes the matter bad, imho, is that this is exactly the kind of mental mistake that gets rookies benched for long periods, in lawrence frank’s world. if a rookie young player makes that kind of mistake, it’s pointed to as an indication that he’s not ready to play.  
    vets like max, however, make such a fundamental error and there are no repercussions.
    ball watching – without keeping an eye on his man, also – is one of the dumbest things that dumb players do.   the fact that max is an 8 year vet and still makes that mistake, is…well, as i said, it is the kind of error that usually gets a rookie benched.

  • Nov 4, 20125:11 pm
    by frankie d


    btw, when it happened, it was hard to believe.  while the significance is far less, obviously, i immediately thought of chris webber and his time out.  absolute brain cramp.

  • Nov 4, 20126:04 pm
    by gmehl


    It only ever takes 1 out of the 5 guys on the court to be the weak link and it will all fall to sh!t. How does the saying go ‘it takes 5 fingers to make a fist’. We need all 5 guys on the court at once playing above there normal level of play to make some nose this year. Look back at 2001-02 piston roster and you will see that those guys played as a team on both ends of the court without stars but with a lot of heart.

  • Nov 4, 20126:48 pm
    by ray


    We took 6-7 seconds off the clock pressuring the ball to end up give up a 2 point lay-up anyway… That’s always the high risk with applying full court pressure …

    If you foul on the inbound… That 19 seconds … Even if they make both … If you come back with a quick two…. Then with 14-15 seconds left you still have options…. In our case we lucked out to have a chance to send it to overtime

    • Nov 5, 20126:05 am
      by Jakob Eich


      Both strategies have a lot of ifs and buts, you never know! What we do know, however, is that it could have worked if Maxey hadn’t blacked out. I think the only other viable option for Max would have been JJ, Drummond and Kravtsov are just too inexperienced. In retrospective though it seems like neither one of them could have done worse. 
      WHat I don’t like about fouling on the inbound is that you basically assume you get a quick two, there’s about a 60% chance you don’t. Even if we do, and we just traded baskets, we are in the exact same situation with less time. 

  • Nov 4, 20126:50 pm
    by ryan


    Thanks Jakob I always enjoy seeing these plays broken down, more so when the Pistons are successful. I take this as encouraging since it was a good strategy 90% well executed. We’ll get there.

  • Nov 5, 20122:01 am
    by MrHappyMushroom


    What an excellent break down! Even I understood.
    Sounds like Max was a completely bum on this play.  I don’t think coaches should need to remind an eight year vet that he shouldn’t allow some guy to stand all alone under your basket.

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