Defense Proves Itself Again

UCLA mounts a comeback and beats Stanford, 68-57, Saturday, mostly because it, suprisingly, started playing some pretty effective defense, and in doing so generated a little bit of hope...

UCLA's victory over Stanford, 68-57, was a fairly satisfying game. I'm sure it was satisfying for the UCLA players and coaches, and the comeback victory, mounted by a well-played 30 minutes, was one of the most satisfying for UCLA fans to watch this season.

It was also particularly satisfying for me, because it was a game that reinforced so many theories I've written here at Bruin Report Online about this year's team.

I've asserted from the beginning of the season, and particularly emphasized it in the Cal review, that the Bruins were going nowhere without defense. This game was a prime example of it. They played poorly on the defensive end for the first ten minutes of the game, and trailed 24-10. Then they had a defensive re-awakening, held Stanford scoreless for over 6 minutes, and went on a 14-0 run to draw to 24-24 a few minutes before the half. There were so many nice defensive stops during that first-half run that there are probably too many to mention. Then, in the second half, UCLA's defense continued to be effective, holding Stanford to 31% shooting in the second half (31% for the game), doing it by improved on-ball defense and, particularly, by being better against Stanford's screens. The game was actually fun to watch, which is uncommon this season, because UCLA didn't allow very many easy baskets and played sound and focused defensively.

I've also asserted since the beginning of the season that UCLA's best lineup might be with Tyler Honeycutt playing the four spot, and this game definitely reinforced that assertion. So many of UCLA's best offensive and defensive possessions were with the smaller lineup, with the offense flowing much better and the defense far better at staying in front of the ball and knowing what to do with screens. Honeycutt, when matched up with the bigger Dwight Powell and even Jack Trotter, did far better than he usually does against 6-6, 180-pound small forwards. Powell is a face-up four type, but he couldn't get around Honeycutt. A couple of times when Powell tried to use his size and post up, Honeycutt responded with good post defense and blocked Powell's shot. Against Trotter, who is a true post at 6-9 and 230, Honeycutt gave up a little room to Trotter's bigger body, but his quickness and jumping ability shut down Trotter, too. We concede that Trotter isn't a real post scoring threat, but it goes to our theory that Honeycutt will generally fare better defending any four man, of any size, than just about any small forward, who are generally too quick for him.

With Honeycutt able to defend the opposing four, that puts either Malcolm Lee or Tyler Lamb on the opposing three, and they have the quickness and defensive ability to stay in front of the ball. Then, with Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson on the guards, UCLA is a considerably better on-ball defensive team – and that makes a huge difference. UCLA is by far less dependent on its help defense. It is able to extend out and get up on perimeter players, and not allow them to execute the offense or feed the post near as well. It not only keeps the ball in front of the defender better, it does just a little more in terms of defensive disruption to make UCLA's defense far more effective.

Honeycutt, too, is so much more of an effective rebounder playing the four, not only generally playing closer to the basket, but being too athletic for many fours to be able to block out on the defensive boards. In one of the possessions during UCLA's first-half run, he went up quicker than Josh Huestis, a 6-7, 230-pound power forward, for a defensive rebound.

Then, offensively, the smaller lineup is far better in transition, quicker up the court and better at finishing. They got four key fastbreak points in that first-half run, and continued to get opportunities in the second half. In the halfcourt, the smaller lineup executes clearly better, with better penetration and ball movement. One of the key possessions of the game was when Anderson penetrated and kicked out to Honeycutt for a three, to draw UCLA to a tie, 24-24. Honeycutt isn't quick enough to take small forwards off the dribble, but he is tall enough and has become such a good spot-up shooter that he's very hard to defend when he has just a little space to shoot from the outside. When you have Anderson, Jones and Lee all on the perimeter, and all able to find seams to penetrate and kick, it makes it very hard for opposing teams to find enough defenders to stay in front of all of them – and be able to have anyone good enough to effectively close out on the 6-8 Honeycutt when he spots up. There are just so many little contributing factors that make the smaller lineup so much more effective.

Perhaps there is a significant silver lining to Josh Smith being injured and unable to play in this game. It definitely showed that UCLA's smaller lineup has some clear advantages. We might never have known it otherwise.

I've asserted that Lee is UCLA's MVP and he definitely made the case in this game. Lee scored 23 points, shot 2-for-4 from three and 9-of-10 from the free-throw line. He is UCLA's best defender, and always gets the assignment of defending the opposing team's best perimeter player, and in this case that was Stanford's Jeremy Green. Green was stymied for most of the game, held to 4-of-15 shooting and looked out of sync offensively, which Lee's defense tends to do to you. But Lee has always been a very good defender; where he's continued to improve, and why he's become UCLA's most effective player, is his offense. Lee used to play out of control most of the time, turning the ball over, dribbling into nowhere, and shooting ill-advised shots. He, now, very rarely makes bad decisions, drives under control, taking mostly good shots squared up and in rhythm. With the shot clock running down on one possession during UCLA's first-half run, he pump faked, one-dribbled and then pulled up from about 15 to swish a big basket, something he just wouldn't have had the composure to do not too long ago. When he confidently hit the clutch three with the shot clock running down to put UCLA up 4-41 in the second half, he looked like a completely different player than the Malcolm Lee of last year. His game against Stanford was a stark indication of how far Lee has come in his maturation and development. And remember, again, he's doing all this offensively while taking on the biggest defensive burden of anyone on the team every game.

If we're talking about integral parts of the improved defense and smaller lineup, you have to mention Lamb. He was the catalyst that got UCLA's first-half run started, providing excellent defense against Green on two Stanford possessions. He then was excellent in help defense on another possession, and forced Josh Owens to throw an errant pass. He did so many little things, too, on defense, that might go unnoticed, like hustling back in transition and stopping the ball, which UCLA has been very bad doing this season.

Lazeric Jones is probably UCLA's runner-up in terms of team MVP, with how he's come into his own from the beginning of the season. He clearly has settled in with his outside jumper, but the biggest offensive advancement for Jones has been his ability to drive the lane and convert. At the beginning of the season he'd do it out of control and mostly lose the ball or miss an off-balance shot, but now he's far more under control, utilizing a jump stop, and it's become a definite offensive weapon, especially since he's shooting 83% from the line on the season, and 85% in the last eight games. UCLA, during its Final Four years, had a guard it could always go to when it needed a basket, and Jones is now filing that role, able to take defenders off the dribble and score or draw a foul. While his offense has blossomed, averaging 16 points per game in his last three outings, his defense continues to be solid.

Another integral part of this all working has been the emergence of Anthony Stover. He brings a completely different dimension to the court – first and foremost, he plays defense with intensity. And he's smart and active, especially when hedging or doubling the post. Josh Owens was pretty much terrorizing UCLA in the first half, and then Stover had a few gos at him and shut him down, with one nice block. UCLA's post defense improved dramatically when Stover was in the game, and even in combination with Brendan Lane, during that first-half run. The two of them are quite a bit better at doubling the post, and at rotating out of it. Stover is a defensive presence, not only because of his shot-blocking ability, but his desire to play defense, hedge and hustle to his rotation.

This game is proof of one of our theories – that you can't rely on offense to win games. UCLA played poorly defensively in the first 10 minutes, waiting for its offense to carry it, as it's done many times this season. But the offense was sloppy and unfocused. Thus, UCLA got down by 14 points. UCLA's defense – as it's been since Howland came to UCLA – put the Bruins back in the game, getting stop after stop in that game-deciding first-half run. Even with UCLA's offense still sputtering for a great deal of the last 10 minutes of the first half, UCLA's defense continued to get stops, until the offense actually started taking advantage. Yes, the offense improved (probably because of the energy it got from defense), but make no mistake – this game was won on defense. UCLA shot a poor 38% from the field and got out-rebounded 44-37. But it won the game because it kept Stanford to 31% shooting for the game, forcing them into difficult shots away from the basket. UCLA won because Lee and Lamb shut down Green. It won because Honeycutt and Stover had 6 blocks. It won not because of Honeycutt's 16 points, but because of his hustling on defense (and his ability to defend a four rather than a three).

Heck, right when we were ready to give up on this team defensively, and thought we could only expect wins that resembled the won over Cal on Thursday, these unpredictable Bruins went out Saturday against Stanford and showed they are capable of playing UCLA-worthy defense – and inspired a little hope.

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