We'll consider ASU a non-cupcake, so the way UCLA played against the Sun Devils in the first 20 minutes should be considered another step in the progress of this team. The Bruins sustained fairly good defense for the longest they have during a game all season, and combined that with playing smart and disciplined on the offensive end. That resulted in UCLA surging ahead of ASU to go up by 20 points late in the first half.
It probably wasn't a coincidence that UCLA played mostly man defense during the surge. Even with a lack of great on-ball defenders across the roster, the man defense in the first half made up for it with energy and a clear difference in commitment to help defense. Of course there were a few breakdowns and lulls here and there, but watching the team string together decent-to-good defense over the course of a number of defensive possessions made this game particularly watchable.
It also isn't a coincidence that the good defense started with some pretty good on-ball defense by Norman Powell and Zach LaVine against ASU's point guard, Jahii Carson. There is a pretty well-accepted theory that man defense really is dictated by how well you can defend the opposing point guard, disrupt him and take him out of his game. If you can do that to a certain degree, most of the time the opponent's offense will be out of sync or just plain break down. Powell and LaVine are each probably 5 inches taller than Carson, so the challenge was clearly to stay in front of him, limit penetration, and then use their length to disrupt Carson's shot when he pulls up. It worked, for a couple of reasons. Both Powell and LaVine were good in defending Carson, a number of times moving their feet very well to keep Carson out of the lane. But also, Carson was a shadow of the player we're familiar with, particularly the one we saw last season. This entire year, even though he's averaging 18 points a game, Carson just doesn't look like the guy we saw last season. He definitely looks to have lost some quickness. And in the first half Sunday that was the case. He also looked out of it mentally, too, and you might have to give Powell/LaVine also some credit for contributing to that. You also have to give some credit to UCLA's bigs in their help defense. Travis Wear and David Wear were a step quicker than usual in moving over to provide help. Tony Parker was also good in rotating. There was one defensive possession at about the 12:45 mark where ASU used a ball screen for Carson but Parker plugged perfectly, and it gave LaVine time to recover and get back in front of Carson.
Carson was held to just 9 points and 2 assists with 4 turnovers. At one point he was 2 of 12 shooting and finished 4 of 17.
How UCLA played defense in the first half is a testament to how powerful good defense can be. The Bruins actually didn't play very well – or play well defensively – for probably the first five minutes, going down 12-6, mostly based on some pretty poor defensive possessions to start the game. Then the Bruins went on a 14-0 run for about three minutes (three minutes! That's it) that was completely fueled by great D. It started when, on three possessions, UCLA got three successive steals, mostly thanks to some really sloppy passing by ASU – but hey, we'll give the UCLA defense some credit. Then they strung together four good defensive possessions and LaVine was off to the races. When you looked up literally just three minutes later, the score is 20-12.
There was a bit of a defensive lull for a few minutes again, and then UCLA clamped down one more time, for just a few defensive possessions. It fueled another 8-0 run that UCLA used to go up 41-21 with about 4 minutes remaining in the first half. The Bruins then lulled again to finish out the half. So, really, UCLA put together maybe 8 minutes of good defense in the first half. Just 8 minutes. And that was easily the best half of defense we've seen all year, and made for probably UCLA's best overall half of the season.
Yep, defense is a powerful thing.
There is always a discussion on what fuels what – whether good offense makes a team play good defense, or whether good defense fuels a team to play good offensively. I would have said that for this team, prior to this game, good offense fueled good defense at times. But Sunday it definitely was a case of UCLA's good defense having a big impact on the offensive end of the court. UCLA's good defense led to defensive rebounds and a good amount of points in transition, for one. But it then also looked clearly like it was the catalyst to UCLA playing with poise, discipline and smarts on offense for most of the first half. Many will point to LaVine as being the offensive star of the first half, since he was definitely a big scoring spark, coming into the game throwing down a couple of dunks and then hitting big threes, going three for three from beyond the arc in the first half. And of course, give LaVine credit: He made his shots and most of them were within the flow of the offense. The curl, catch and shoot in the first half is why many NBA scouts are considering LaVine, despite so many youthful warts. But the credit for how well the offense operated and flowed in the first half has to go to Anderson. Anderson had 9 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists with 0 turnovers in the first half, and was excellent in running UCLA's offense. He made good decisions, which has been a bit of his bugaboo at times, either looking to score or distribute at the right times. And Anderson's good play wasn't necessarily his flashiest; it was just operating the offense and getting the ball in the right spot at the right time. It was also recognizing when to exploit his scoring ability and the natural offensive mis-match he creates – and recognizing the ones his teammates have. He ran a couple of plays for himself to post up his smaller ASU defender, and he was instrumental in getting Powell the ball when he was guarded by the much-smaller Carson. Anderson finished with 17 points, 13 rebounds and 7 assists.
The second half was a bit messy, mostly since Anderson picked up his fourth foul and had to sit for a long time. With Anderson out, UCLA really bogged down offensively, completely without direction and out of sync. That, UCLA fans, was a little scary preview of what this team could be like next season when it misses Anderson running the show – really, without an elite point guard to make the offense work. Arizona State clawed their way back in it, not really because of a complete breakdown defensively by UCLA, but just that the Bruins really struggled to convert on the offensive end. After scoring 50 points in the first half, which was the most scored against ASU in a half all season, it had 37 in the second. You have to thank ASU coach Herb Sendek a bit for not trying to foul out Anderson once he came back in the game with his fourth foul.
A few more things to note:
-- UCLA's defense on ASU's center Jordan Bachynski was very good. The Wears and Parker did a good job on him, getting position and in double-teaming him enough to get him out of any kind of comfort zone.
-- It was easily one of the best games for UCLA in providing help defense in the last two years. Yes, there were some lapses in terms of help, but the Wears were both very good, under control and in position. The start of the second half was kind of a little microcosm of the Wears at UCLA. One is beat on a pick-and-roll, and then David Wear loses Jonathan Gilling, leaving him wide open for a three. ASU starts the half with five straight points. But then David Wear hits a three, and the Wears put together three straight solid defensive possessions, which featured some great help defense and one charge (Man, don't we miss the old college basketball rules that created more opportunities to take charges?).
-- UCLA out-rebounded ASU 42-29. It's probably not coincidental that UCLA rebounded better when it played predominantly man defense as opposed to zone.
-- The worry was that the team would suffer from a Arizona hangover and have a letdown game against Arizona State, that didn't happen. The Bruins played with good effort for most of the game.
-- Steve Alford, when the subs came in at their usual time – didn't go to a zone but stayed in man for a few minutes. He then did go to a zone, but that little bit of unpredictability – and then going to the zone when it wasn't expected – was key in keeping ASU a bit off-balance offensively in the first half.
It could be that Alford has found the right defensive tactic – mostly man with a sprinkling of zone and ¾-court trap. The man defense was definitely the difference in UCLA's improved defensive play. It could be it took this team this long – by mid-January – to really "get it" how to play Alford's man D.
We're hoping that's the case.