Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Art of the Steal

Talking about defense is never easy. As hard as it is to actually play good defense, it’s almost as difficult to analyze during a game. There are so many strategies and moving parts that the human eye can’t process all the information at once. That’s why discussing it is usually limited to played-out maxims like “defense wins championships.”

Few coaches, on any level, have taught the nuts and bolts of defense like Dick Bennett. The crown jewel of Bennett’s impressive coaching career was taking a band of hard-nosed players at Wisconsin to the 2000 Final Four. UW was often criticized for its methodical offense, but the team made its bones on defense and the Badgers were fourth in the nation that season in scoring defense at 58.8 points per game.

Spearheading that team’s defense was point guard Mike Kelley, the school’s all-time steals leader with 275 and generally regarded as one of the best off-the-ball defenders in recent college basketball memory. He also shares UW’s single-game record for thefts with 10 against Texas on Dec. 7, 1999.

Probably Kelley’s best defensive work came in the first two games of the Badgers’ tournament run in 2000. The four players he matched up with all later played in the NBA — Fresno State’s Courtney Alexander and Arizona’s Luke Walton, Richard Jefferson and Gilbert Arenas.

Kelley had run into trouble before with big, athletic guards (Ball State’s Bonzi Wells gave him fits one game). Alexander fit that mold. Fresno State’s star led the nation in scoring at 25.3 points per game, so Kelley had to be in top form.

Kelley responded early, fighting around a screen by Fresno State’s Larry Abney, then jumping into the passing lane with his right hand to steal a pass by Demetrius Porter just over a minute into the game. That led to a fast-break layup and was the first of 17 turnovers by the Bulldogs. Alexander couldn’t get by Kelley and never looked comfortable, finishing 5 of 19 for just 11 points as UW won, 66-56. Kelley had six steals to match his assists.

Against Arizona, Kelley struck early again, knocking the ball away from Walton for a steal at the 18:40 mark. However, guarding Jefferson, Kelley picked up his second foul with 14:29 still to play in the first half. Kelley had to watch from the bench as Arenas got hot. The future “Agent Zero” had 12 of Arizona’s 23 points at halftime on 5-for-9 shooting.

Kelley was tasked with slowing down Arenas in the second half. He harassed Arenas into going 2 for 9 in the final 20 minutes. Kelley had five steals as UW knocked off the top-seeded Wildcats, 66-59.

So what did Kelley do so well? Why were the Badgers so good at slowing other teams’ offenses? Again, dissecting defense is difficult, so it is best to go straight to the source. After all, Kelley moonlights as an ESPN game analyst. Kelley was kind enough to respond to some wonky questions about defense, Bennett and the 2000 tournament.

Q. In the first two rounds of the 2000 NCAA tournament, you spent time guarding some future pro players, mostly Alexander, Jefferson and Arenas. Do you remember anything about your game plan for defending them?

A. We (I) had a more specific game plan against Alexander than the other two. The NCAA loss in the first round the prior year left such a bad taste in our mouth that we didn’t even bother worrying about our second round matchup, we just wanted to get a “W” any way we could. So, for Fresno State, the coaches spliced together all of his shots from about 3-4 games (I think they were his conference tournament games, but can’t remember exactly). It was a highlight tape like you wouldn’t believe. It was frightening because the guy could/would score from anywhere. But we were able to notice that when he went to his left, he usually pulled up for a mid-range jumper, and when he went right he went all the way to the bucket. He also preferred to take the deep 3 above all else. With that knowledge, our plan was to extend our “Pack” defense on him and take away the quick 3. Then force him left (a typical plan with a right-handed shooter) with the understanding that I needed to be ready for a quick pull-up.

Q. Coach Bennett is hailed as a defensive mastermind. What were his core principles on defense and what did he teach you as an individual?

A. Coach Bennett IS a defensive mastermind, and I don’t think you could find any of his peers that would disagree. He taught the “Pack” defense, which essentially consisted of a mini-three point line set in about two feet from the standard three-point line. The idea was that unless you were guarding the ball, you had to be inside the pack. A typical drill for us consisted of a half court 5-on-4 game where the defense had to match up one-on-one and the offense had one extra guard trying to penetrate. The extra guard could only shoot a layup or drive and dish to a teammate, but his goal was to test out the help ability of the defense. Tony Bennett typically played the extra offensive guy and he was fantastic. Bottom line, I’m a firm believer in the adage, “You are what you emphasize,” and with Coach Bennett, everything started and ended with the “D.”

Q. Creating steals has been compared to playing poker and reading an opponents “tells.” Is that something you pick up through playing a lot or is it a skill gleaned from watching video of other players?

A. The majority of defense is effort and positioning. If you want to be good at it, are willing to put in the effort, and have some basic principles that all five guys are trying to execute at the same time, you’re guaranteed an above average defensive team. I would say most steals come from within the normal course of business when playing in that sort of system. But the remaining steals typically come from the “tells” and almost always are learned on the fly … you see an opponent who’s winded and getting lazy with the ball, or maybe he’s not curling hard off a screen, etc. It’s kind of hard to explain, but you just see things or patterns that you’ve seen before or you just get a gut instinct and you go for it.

Q. You were lauded as a great off-the-ball defender. What did you focus on when your man didn't have the ball? How do you know how much space to give?

A. When defending a shooter off the ball, more than anything you have to focus on the screens. If you get picked off by a screen, it doesn’t matter how fast your closing speed is, it’s too late. As a result, I was allowed greater leniency to be out of the typical help position — because the further you are removed from the guy you’re defending, the easier it is to get caught up in the melee and get screened. The better the player/scorer, the closer I stayed at all times.

Q. How do you know when to gamble in the passing lanes for a steal? Do you get more conservative if the game is close?

A. It all depends. I probably got more conservative later in close games because of the risk involved. Also, I typically never tried to jump the passing lanes right away in a game because the other team was fresh and thus their passes were crisper. Usually after a few minutes you’ll notice a lazy pass here or there and then you start to look for your chances.

Q. What is the order of importance for getting steals — hands, feet, heart and head?

A. Great (tough) question. If I had to put in order, I would say heart, head (eyes/brain), feet, hands. As stated above, if you really want it and are willing to put in the work (heart), and have been taught a solid defensive system (head/feet), you’re 90% there.

1 comment:

  1. Mike Kelley was one of the best defensive guards I've ever seen. He was one of the few players who materially impacted games without scoring very much or getting many assists. At the time I attributed his defensive prowess to reflexes and effort. His answers here demonstrate that there was a lot of thought put into it as well, along with the Bennett defensive system.