Because you get paid off with a game like the one UCLA played against USC Thursday, beating the Trojans 64-50.
It was a huge win. It ended UCLA's four-game losing streak to USC, kept the Bruins firmly entrenched in the Pac-10 race and in NCAA Tournament contention.
It was also just fun to beat USC that way.
And it was a well-played game and easy to watch.
It's not difficult to make the case that it was UCLA's best-played game of the season, even better than the win over BYU.
UCLA held USC to just 39% shooting from the field, out-rebounded the Trojans by a whopping 39-25, held them to 50 points (15 in the second half), and committed only 8 turnovers.
That was truly a pleasure to watch.
The watchability factor starts with defense, of course. UCLA's D wasn't fantastic, but it wasn't bad, by any means. It did continue to allow too many baskets off screens, which has been its bugaboo the last month, mostly because the team simply refuses to provide help defense. But it was far more effective at staying in front of the ball – generally – than it had been for most of the season, and it was much better in transition defense, which has also been a season-long issue. Shoring up those two lines of defense made a particular difference in the defense's effectiveness. USC got only two baskets in transition, and not nearly as many baskets off the dribble in the half-court.
Perhaps the most encouraging was the defense UCLA played in the first 10 minutes or so of the game. For those 10 minutes, UCLA looked energized and focused defensively (well, most of the Bruins, anyway). Reeves Nelson played some of his best defense of the season in those first ten minutes, being active not only in his post defense, but much better in defending the screen, much quicker and active in plugging. It might also be that Anthony Stover was in the game, and he makes a difference defensively.
UCLA built a solid 9-point lead with its initial defensive effort, holding USC to 5-for-17 (29%) shooting by the 8:30 mark of the first half.
UCLA's defense eroded a bit from there, mostly because USC Coach Kevin O'Neill started exploiting UCLA's defensive weaknesses more, especially by utilizing its NBA-ready forward Nikola Vucevic. USC started to pick and roll Vucevic, and UCLA's defenders went back to struggling against it, failing sometimes to recognize who picks up whom out of it.
Luckily, USC doesn't have much beyond Vucevic. When he struggled a bit in the second half, missing some fairly easy baskets, USC's offense grinded to a half. The Trojan's backcourt just isn't very talented, and UCLA's match-up advantage clearly showed. USC's three perimeter starters scored a total of 7 points in the game, struggling to take the ball to the basket against UCLA's bigger players. Jio Fontan is USC's second-leading scorer, averaging 11.6 points per game, but he's only 6-0, and Malcolm Lee completely smothered him, holding him to 0 points and only 5 shots, and not one three-pointer. He was so rattled he missed two free throws down the stretch of the game. Then there is Maurice Jones, USC's diminutive, 5-7 guard, and UCLA's guards collectively held him to 2 points, when he averages 10.1. Coming off the bench for USC is their best three-point shooter, Donte Smith, but the 5-11 guard struggled against UCLA's size, only taking one three-pointer in the game (which he made). USC's guards tend to penetrate to primarily kick out and, to UCLA's credit, UCLA looked like it was well aware of that. Many times there was an open lane to the basket, but USC's guards still kicked out the ball, to a well-guarded teammate. UCLA clearly had scouted this, and stepped out to guard USC's spot-up shooters on any USC penetration. And it really worked. USC is a decent three-point shooting team, but shot just 1 for 9 from behind the arc in this game. Most of the looks weren't there, with a Bruin defender in place. And then it's tough when you're 5-7, 5-11 or 6-0 and you're trying to shoot over UCLA's much taller backcourt.
Where USC's smaller perimeter players did have an advantage was just about anytime UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt guarded them. Honeycutt was the weak link in UCLA's defense Thursday, really struggling to stay in front of the ball. Yes, we realize Honeycutt is almost 6-8 and his lateral quickness is limited, so he struggles guarding smaller opponents, but still – he just doesn't look like he's putting in the effort to stay in front of the ball. And it just wasn't his on-ball defense, but so many other aspects of his defensive play that are plain lazy and unfocused. In one sequence, he didn't block out for a defensive rebound, allowed his smaller man to get the board, but the Trojan missed the lay-up. Honeycutt then showed little effort and allowed his opponent to get the rebound and then Honeycutt fouled him when he put it back up. There were times when his man would take a shot, and Honeycutt would start to float down court, looking to leak out, rather than block out. It was noticeable because the rebound happened to bounce to the exact spot where Honeycutt should have been, but with him leaking out his opponent got the rebound instead. He's also one of the main culprits who just doesn't do well in guarding a screen, especially in this game.
So, yes, we are now advocating that Tyler Lamb should get more of Tyler Honeycutt's minutes. It's not as if you're going to miss Honeycutt's prolific scoring; after starting the season scoring in double figures for 13 of the first 15 games, he's now scored in double figures in just 3 of his last 7 games. He's averaging 10 points per game in the last 7 games. He hasn't scored more than 16 points in a game since the BYU game. If you compare his offensive output in the last 7 games to Lamb's there just plainly isn't much of a drop-off. Honeycutt is averaging 10 points per game in that span, and if Lamb played Honeycutt-type minutes (35 per game in the last seven games) he'd average about 7 points per game. And you could probably bet that Lamb, as he started to get more and more comfortable, would improve his scoring rate. Then, take into consideration how many points Lamb would make up for with his defense compared to Honeycutt and you could probably make a case that Lamb is at least not a drop-off in plus/minus points compared to Honeycutt. And you can't say that the freshman Lamb would turn over the ball more than Honeycutt, since Honeycutt has a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. You would definitely lose something in terms of rebounding, but again, the defensive advantage you'd get could very well offset it. Regardless of the stats, you could at least make the case that, with the way Honeycutt is playing, with the lack of offensive output and clearly poor defense, giving Lamb more minutes is an interesting option.
At least it would have been a very viable option in a game like against USC, when Lamb is such a better defensive match-up against USC's smaller perimeter players, a game in which Honeycutt is clearly struggling to defend. But Lamb only played 8 minutes.
Howland cited in his post-game comments that he thought UCLA no longer doubling the post, after it had for much of the game, in the second half made a difference. I didn't really see that. While you have to give credit to Nelson for providing good post defense against Vucevic, there were also a few times when the USC star merely missed his shots. It might very well have been that Nelson's good defense had him out of sync a bit.
It's clear that Howland is hesitant to double the post since he his team is so poor at rotating on defense. But after a couple of lapses in doing it against USC (Honeycutt, in fact), UCLA's post-doubling appeared to be pretty effective. It forced a couple of errant passes, and truly disrupted USC's offense. And then, see, when you double the post with your bigs – like Nelson and Josh Smith – the defensive rotation many times falls to Lee or Jerime Anderson, and they're generally pretty good at it. You'd much rather put the help defense responsibility on them then, say, Honeycutt or Nelson. It would be interesting to see if Lamb played more minutes, then, if UCLA would be able to double the post more often.
Offensively, the biggest key for UCLA in this game was taking care of the ball. It committed only 8 turnovers, which is usually a half for the Bruins. It did so since it executed its offense much better and more efficiently. It could have been a result of a few different offensive wrinkles, including initiating more often from a "box offense." The box seems to be well suited to UCLA's personnel, since it's predicated on a lot of interior screening and UCLA has some big bodies that are hard to push through. But the box also tends to utilize more passing and less dribbling, which also seemed to cut down on UCLA's turnovers. UCLA had 17 assists in this game, which is very good, especially against 24 baskets.
And you might notice (but don't tell anyone), UCLA isn't pushing the ball as much. It gets out on a break when it's warranted, rather than regardless of the numbers it has in transition. This cuts down on turnovers significantly.
All of this contributed to valuing each possession far more than it has generally done throughout the season. It got fewer possessions in this game, but you end up ultimately with more if you figure in the possessions you're losing because of turnovers. Dare I say it, but it almost felt a little bit like Bruin basketball circa 2006-2008.
Smith led UCLA scoring with 15 points, playing the most minutes in a game he ever has, 29. It's clear that Smith is learning to assert himself offensively, throwing down some vicious dunks over USC's frontline, rather than laying it up softly. He also looked like he was working harder defensively, especially on the doubles, and he's learning incrementally how to stay out of foul trouble (only two fouls in the game).
UCLA's guards – Lee, Anderson and Lazeric Jones – all played well, and really carried the team for long portions of the game. The Bruins had done well in the first half to get Smith touches, but then failed to do it (or you could say USC worked to take it away) in the second half. Smith and Lee carried UCLA offensively in the first half but then Lee, after scoring 11 first-half points, was also held down in the second half, limited to just one basket the rest of the way. Again, give USC credit for defensive adjustments. But then Anderson and Jones carried the load. Jones had 9 points but 9 critical points, and Anderson's 7 points were particularly key. In one sequence in the second half, with USC trying to fight its way into the game, UCLA had a trip down the court when it had three shot clocks. So, it was able to run some time off the clock, which was good, but it also needed to get some points out of it. Anderson, then stepped up and hit the shot of the night, a rainbow three-pointer, that put up UCLA 53-45 and seemed to deflate the Trojans. And if you're talking about Trojan-deflating, Jones's block on a Fontan dunk with about 4 minutes remaining was it. The crowd then got into it, the energy in Pauley rose considerably, and USC was pretty much done.
It was a bit of a curious game in the second half. USC had pretty much taken away Smith and Lee, the two guys who had accounted for 20 of UCLA's 36 points by halftime. UCLA's two leading scorers, Nelson and Honeycutt, scored only 8 points each in this game, and just 10 points combined in the second half. UCLA clearly won the game in the second half because USC scored just 15 points and shot 38%. It was curious because it wasn't clearly because UCLA was playing great defensively, but it was a combination of UCLA's perimeter players doing a better job of staying in front of the ball, USC's perimeter players just not being very good, and Vucevic being disrupted enough by Nelson's defense that he missed some shots.
All in all, it was a very satisfying game, perhaps the most satisfying of the season. It's again the case that just when you thought you could give up hope, the Bruins play a game like this and tell you not to give up on them.
Just like Al Pacino's famous quote in the "Godfather Part 3": "Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in..."