UCLA beat Colorado Saturday, 77-60, playing perhaps its prettiest game of the season. It would compete as its best game, too, but it was certainly the prettiest to watch in terms of offensive execution and shooting.
It's the type of game that, as a coach, you draw up in Xs and Os, and somehow it all works exactly as you drew it up.
We've been maintaining now for a while that this is perhaps the best UCLA team at executing Ben Howland's offense, and it produced its showcase game against the Buffs.
Again, it has to be said that Colorado plainly isn't very good. We won't say "bad," which we easily have been able to use to describe 75% of UCLA's opponents this season. But Colorado is leading the Pac-12 in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 39%. UCLA shot a sizzling 60% against the Buffs. It has to be said that it is all relative, that saying Colorado is the best defensive team in a bad conference is like saying you're the tallest midget in the circus. But still, we're looking for small victories here, and we can say that Colorado, in a national perspective, isn't a great defense, but at least a good one, and UCLA's offense sliced them apart with precision.
At the very least, in a 12-9 and 5-4 season in which UCLA fans haven't found much to relish, this team does provide you an oasis with the way it executes its offense.
It all happens because of UCLA's three guards, Lazeric Jones, Jerime Anderson and Tyler Lamb. That trio has been edging toward a game like this, with each individually having good games in the past, or then maybe two of them combining for a good game. But against Colorado all three of them were stellar, and it made for a text book-worthy win. The performance that sent it over the top was Lamb's; Jones and Anderson, as of late, had been combining to play well, but Lamb had continued to be inconsistent – until this game. His stat sheet was filled – 13 points, 3 of 5 from three, 7 rebounds, 6 assists (against 2 turnovers), 3 steals and 1 block. He played under control and didn't force much (perhaps one shot during the course of the game). He was truly the catalyst to UCLA's three or so runs in this game, on both ends of the floor, creating Buffalo turnovers and then making some big offensive plays – including both some big shots and big passes. Lamb has clearly always shown the aptitude for playing like this in spurts, but has in the past been limited at times by inexperience and immaturity. Certainly he'll have some regressive moments in the future, too, but this was a milestone game for him. Not only were the three three-pointers backbreakers for Colorado, but the 6 assists, to go along with other passes that don't show up on the stat sheet, were equally as back-breaking. His rebounding was particularly a force, pulling down some very impressive rebounds, and he played very good defensively, generally, matching up against Colorado's leading scorer, Carlon Brown, holding him to 6 points on 2-of-7 shooting and 0-for-3 from three.
The three of them – Lamb, Jones and Anderson – together combined for some amazing stats. They combined for a stunning 23 assists, which pushed UCLA to a total of 26 assists overall on 31 made baskets. That perhaps is the biggest indication of a team that's executing well offensive – how many assists to made baskets – reflective of how the offense isn't dependent on players going one-on-one but is getting its points through execution, and this was a calling-card game for it.
The three guards also combined to shoot 62.5% from the field, and 60% from three. And most of their shots were jump shots, taken beautifully in the flow of the offense. They scored 38 points, had six steals and 13 rebounds between the three of them. Throw in the play of Norman Powell, too, who hit both of his three-point attempts and had two assists.
Jones has really grown into a good player, being smart enough to minimize his weaknesses by buying in and allowing Howland's offense to boost what he naturally doesn't do well. If he stays within the flow of the offense, doesn't force things and looks for the pass that's designed to be there, he becomes a good set-up man (9 assists Saturday). If he moves off the ball in the way the play is designed, he'll get a high-percentage of open shots that he's very good at knocking down (7 of 10 from the field).
Anderson, while he has a better natural feel and vision for the game, still has had a history of poor decisions, and Howland's offense has been the perfect vehicle for keeping Anderson under control. He had 8 assists against Colorado, and most of them were within the structure of the offense.
In most college games, players force plays. These are kids, remember, playing basketball, so they are prone to making poor decisions, and when you watch, as a fan, you're prone to a dialogue something like this: "No, what are you doing? Why would you make that decision? Didn't you see the guy open off the pick and roll? No, don't take the ball into the key! Where are you going? No, don't take that shot. Ah!!" But I find myself, in watching this UCLA team executing this offense, uttering far, far less of these types of comments. Against Colorado, very rarely did they make a bad decision. Even most of the 12 turnovers weren't badly forced ones, but ones you could rationalize because they resulted from good intentions. A high percentage of the shots UCLA took in the game were within the flow of the halfcourt offense and in rhythm. And that high percentage leads to that high field goal percentage for the game. Anderson, Lamb and Jones have now become so experienced within Howland's offense they're starting to find open second, third, and even fourth options. It's like a painter, after he puts the initial paint to canvass, going back and adding layers to it, building on it. It, again, is a pretty thing to see.
What is also key to it all is just not the execution from the three guards, but that of Travis Wear and David Wear. For Howland's offense to work as well as it has at times this season, it's completely dependent on its bigs executing precisely, making the screen or cut, and doing it where it's supposed to happen on the floor, and the Wears are very precise in their execution. The three guards are moving the ball with purpose on the perimeter and the Wears are moving without the ball exactly where Howland wants them to, and it makes for a well-designed play, with many options just about every time down the court.
It's a testament to what buying in can do. None of these players mentioned are ever going to be superstars on any level. There isn't an NBA player among those five. So, give them a huge amount of credit for seemingly having a great sense of self-awareness, realizing who they are and the only way they'll be able to succeed is through buying in to Howland's offense. At the beginning of the season, Jones wasn't buying in, the Wears were getting acclimated and no one on the team really knew their role, especially with the Reeves Nelson distraction. And give Howland a great amount of credit for not only conceiving of the offense, but getting these five to buy in and stay focused in executing it.
It's kind of ironic. Howland has always had the rep of being a superior defensive coach, and not necessarily a good offensive one. At this point, if you had just watched this season, you'd have to say that Howland is a very good offensive coach and an average defensive one.
It's a matter that the personnel on this team, while it lacks a high degree of talent and athleticism, is a perfect match for Howland's structured offense, moreso than any he's coached at UCLA. In fact, so many fans are clamoring for UCLA to run more when, in fact, it shouldn't. These five guys aren't naturally good transition players. In transition it's mostly a game of a player's instincts, and that's where Jones, Anderson and Lamb aren't good. And the Wears aren't exactly the idea finishers in transition. Howland, in not allowing this team to run as much (notice you don't hearing him yelling "Push! Push!" as much), but opting for a halfcourt set, is playing to the team's and players strengths.
In other words, hoping for these guys to play defense on the level of UCLA's Final Four teams is really a pipe dream. They just don't have the athleticism to pull it off. But their clear strength is, when they buy in and play under control, Howland's offense brings out their best offensive qualities. It's too bad it's taken 3/4s of the season for this to come to such fruition like it did against Colorado Saturday.
Josh Smith is a curious sidebar in this story. He doesn't really blend within the flow of the offense as well. When he's in the game, the focus is to get him a touch inside, and it should be. But he's still uncomfortable and clumsy when he catches the ball for the most part. UCLA, against Colorado, very rarely wasted an offensive possession, but the ones that were wasted mostly came – as they have for a majority of the season – when Smith mishandles a finish.
And the key to UCLA being good is not it's offensive execution. It seems, at this point, that's a given. The key to UCLA beating decent teams, like it did Saturday, was playing good enough defense to get enough stops to then enable its offense to execute on the other end and make runs. UCLA did that in spurts against Colorado, one during the first half, but then more significantly in the second half. It's not coincidental that the Bruins held Colorado to 35% shooting in the second half and out-scored them 37-24. A key to this is, to be blunt, not having Smith on the floor. Against Colorado every time UCLA broke down defensively, especially in the first half, it was a result of Smith making a defensive mistake. Mostly it's his inability to rotate, to both recognize the rotation correctly and have enough quickness to execute it. Colorado had some lay-ups and dunks because other UCLA players had to compensate for Smith's defensive liability.
Here's the thing: Smith had 8 points and 1 rebound in this game. At this point, with the way the offense is executing without him, does it really need him offensively? Yes, perhaps as a change of pace offensively, to make opposing teams have to shift gears and change the focus of their defense. But, again, UCLA is going to only be as good as its defense, and it seems, at this point, with how the offense is executing, the answer is the guy who only had 3 minutes in this game, Anthony Stover. Of course, I recognize that it gets tiresome to hear some of the same, repetitive assertions in many of these analyses, but just because they need repeating doesn't make them any less true. Stover, in his three minutes, had two excellent blocks and was, again, a defensive difference-maker. When UCLA has gone on the road and looked like another team than it has at home it's mostly because it breaks down defensively more. It's understandable; it's tough to keep defensive focus in a foreign arena. It's easier to stay focused offensively because, inherently, on offense you're the one with the plan, and defense you're having to stay focused to react to the other team's plan. It's generally accepted that defense is the first thing to break down on the road. So, perhaps, with how good the offense is executing without Smith, it's time to make the change to give the defense a boost with Stover, and just in time for easily the toughest road trip of the season when UCLA goes to the state of Washington this week.
When watching such a pretty game, like the one against Colorado, it's very easy to get swept away with it. The way UCLA played was, truly, an oasis in the general desert of a mediocre season. The issue, of course, is: when the team goes on the road this weekend for the oasis not to turn into a mirage.