UCLA played fairly well against Oregon, after starting off sluggishly and sloppily. It found itself down by 12 points, 25-13, at the 5:54 mark of the first half. But from then on out, you could say UCLA played some of its best basketball of the season.
Now, you really have to take into consideration the Ducks simply aren't very good. Yeah, they beat the Trojans Thursday on quite a bit of adrenaline, and they're playing hard and with a growing sense of cohesion. But this is still the team that lost to San Jose State and Idaho.
Even taking that into consideration, however, you could maybe assert the Bruins took a few baby steps forward Saturday in Eugene.
We had said back in November in our season preview that UCLA's best lineup could be with Tyler Honeycutt at the four, and smallish Oregon gave UCLA the chance to go to that smaller lineup. And, really, because of that, it probably looked the most fluid on offense it has all season, while looking more focused defensively.
Of course, UCLA's three most effective players in this game happened to be Lazeric Jones, Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee, so when they were utilized in the small lineup in this game it really worked. But it's tough to determine the chicken-or-the-egg – whether the three just had good games so they made the team that much better, or that the three of them played so well in this game because they were in the game together. There are so many factors when you put together five players on a court, and sometimes it's difficult to know how the dynamics will all work out – until you do it. But playing the smaller lineup accomplished a number of things:
-- It freed up Malcolm Lee from guard duties and allowed him to get in a rhythm as a catch-and-shooter. He responded with 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting and three very well-timed and clutch three pointers. He looked the best, most confident and most under control he probably ever has as a Bruin.
-- It enabled Jones to do what he does best – be more of a two guard. He knocked down his open shots and took the ball to the rim with aggressiveness, finishing with 12 points.
-- It relieved Honeycutt of having to defend smaller, quicker guys and put him on a slower guy, and brought him closer to the basket. He finished with a game-high 11 rebounds, many of which were in very critical sequences.
-- With Honeycutt at the four, and playing more of a perimeter-oriented game offensively, it creates better spacing, and provides more room for Josh Smith in the paint. It results in wider penetration lanes, more room to pass, and far better opportunities to find open shooters, either with good ball rotation or on drive-and-kicks.
-- It makes UCLA a much better overall outside shooting team. It puts one more shooter to bust a zone in your lineup, so opposing offense can't sag off anyone. UCLA's ball rotation was excellent and it made the extra pass to find the open shooter. It also put one more post-feeder in the game to get Josh Smith the ball on the block.
It definitely makes UCLA a better ball-handing team. There was a stark contrast between the UCLA team we saw against Oregon State that sloppily tried to break OSU's 1-3-1 zone, and the smaller lineup against Oregon slicing through the Ducks' pressure.
-- And, this all is completely dependent on the play of Anderson, who did have his best game of the season. When he's playing with Jones and Lee at the same time, he is the one that changes the dynamics, having the feel to find shooters within the offense that the others don't and creating a kind of domino effect that enables all of the elements listed above to occur. Anderson played 32 minutes and finished with 15 points, three three-pointers, and 3 assists against zero turnovers, while also going 4-for-4 from the free-throw line at critical stages of the game. He shot the ball more confidently in this game than in any time as a Bruin. Perhaps he's more confident when the burden of playing point guard isn't entirely on his shoulders, but when he has Jones and even Lee out there with him?
-- On defense, the entire dynamic changes. Since Howland insists on playing man-to-man, with Anderson, Lee and Jones on the perimeter it gives UCLA so much more on-ball quickness. The defense generally stays in front of the ball better, and it's quicker to help. UCLA, in the second half, when the smaller lineup was on the court, displayed some of its best defensive rotation in recent memory. The smaller lineup then, as we said, doesn't demand that Honeycutt have to defend a perimeter player, where he tends to get in trouble and lose focus. And it doesn't take him away from the basket, where he's an excellent shot blocker (he had two in this game). Also, when Reeves Nelson is on the floor he primarily plays the five, which is an easier position for him to defend.
It will be interesting to see if Ben Howland will consider going with the smaller lineup when UCLA doesn't face a smaller opposing team. Rather that doing it just to adjust and match up against the opponent, perhaps it would be good to dictate it to the opponent. Make the opponents have to adjust to you instead. It would seem to be a good option to go to in future games for sizeable amounts of time to, at least, make the opponent have to defend UCLA different – and thus have to spend time planning to defend UCLA differently – and using personnel it doesn't necessarily want to because of defensive reasons.
The second half, with UCLA primarily utilizing its small lineup, it just seemed less, well, annoying. There were less defensive breakdowns and far less offensive mistakes and bad decisions. In watching the smaller lineup, the offense does generally what it should, play inside/out with good ball movement, and you don't come away from it frustrated. Even with the shots that were missed, you said to yourself, "Yeah, but it was good ball movement and a good shot, he just missed it." And you particularly are less frustrated watching the team defensively since there is far more energy and intensity. It feels like, with that lineup, there is just some fine-tuning to do rather than a major overhaul.
Some of this has to do with the fact that Nelson didn't play many minutes due to foul trouble. Many fans on the BRO message board, even the ones who had previously been staunch Nelson defenders, thought he played a poor game. One regular poster and Nelson defender said: "Reeves should be ashamed of himself for what he brought to the court today. An absolute embarrassment for himself." It's funny, though, because I didn't think it was particularly much different in terms of effort. Yes, of course, he didn't score, and got just three rebounds, but that was mostly because he was in foul trouble throughout the entire game and played just 15 minutes. But I think the posters are judging Nelson too much by his stat line and are being too harsh on him because of his statistically unproductive game. If you actually watch the game he didn't seem to be playing with any less intensity he usually does. It just was a matter that he didn't play very much, and was handcuffed because of foul trouble.
It did, though, give you a peek at how the team can play, and how the level of energy is more consistent, when Nelson isn't on the floor – or at least, when he's not playing the four spot.
If we did have to nitpick and want to fine tune the team we saw Saturday, it would be to work on the little bit of laziness in the halfcourt defense, sagging off their man to potentially cheat over to help in the lane. It created too many open looks for Oregon. It would also still be to shore up transition defense, even though the smaller lineup was much better at quickly finding their player.
Perhaps the biggest "fine tuning" would be to do whatever you can to get Honeycutt to take better care of the ball. He had five turnovers Saturday, and is averaging 5 per game in the last three games. He's just far too loose with the ball, not only in forcing passes that aren't there but in his handling of it. If he got his turnovers under control, UCLA would be within the realm of acceptability in terms of turnovers. Playing him at the four, in fact, would take some ball handling responsibilities away from him, which could help limit his turnovers.
The Oregon sweep puts UCLA in the heart of the conference race at 3-2, just one game behind Washington and Arizona at 4-1. It also breathed a little life into a team that looked like it was going die a slow, uninspired death this season of mental softness and badly inconsistent effort. It's amazing what potentially a change in dynamics and a few dominoes falling can do.