Notice a recent theme?
For a few reasons.
UCLA played decent defense. It held Stanford to 38% shooting, and that was a legitimate number this time, meaning: It just wasn't the opposing team consistently missing wide-open shots. UCLA played mostly man defense and it's clear that the man has improved from just a month ago, much less the start of the season. The players seem to be buying in, and are far more apt to provide help defense than they were previously. There were far less easy baskets against Stanford than there were against, say, UC Santa Barbara a month and a half ago. Making a particular difference defensively have been Travis Wear and David Wear, who have really improved in the last month in help defense. There were a few times in this game when, off a screen, Stanford's lead guard Chasson Randle, got around his man, but a Wear plugged, and even almost trapped him in the corner, very effectively. The help, too, wasn't just about sliding over by a UCLA big; there were plenty of times when a UCLA guard or wing collapsed on a Cardinal to trap him and it resulted in a turnover.
Give credit to Norman Powell – and to a lesser extent Zach LaVine – the primary defenders on Randle, who is one of the leading scorers in the Pac-12 and Stanford's leading scorer, averaging 19 points per game. He was held in this one to 14, and nine of those were in late-garbage time. Randle, a bigger guard, is a great match-up for Powell, not too much smaller and not greatly quicker – and Powell is clearly bigger and stronger. Randle usually gets matched up with smaller guards that he can physically over-power, but not Powell. Of course, it helped that Randle had a bad night and looked out of sync, but you still have to give credit to Powell.
UCLA's defense, not just this year but in the last couple of years, has been predicated on some cleverness in getting steals. It wasn't as much based on sound defensive fundamentals – that is, moving your feet, staying in front of your man and providing really effective help defense. For the first time in a long time, UCLA actually did that in a game against a close-to-non-cupcake. So it combined sound defense along with its penchant for getting steals. It got a whopping 15 steals in this game, mostly based on very good anticipation – along with some very sloppy play by Stanford. As I said, too, the perimeter players are timing their doubling and collapsing very well, and doing it in a way that takes the opposing player by surprise. Powell poked away a few out of a double in this game.
If UCLA can play good, sound man defense, with good help, and have guy likes Powell and Jordan Adams use their cleverness to get steals, then you have something.
This game was probably the first time when all of those elements came together defensively for this team.
Again, it was a pleasure to watch.
Offensively, Kyle Anderson is a pleasure to watch. He had 13 points, 10 assists and 7 rebounds and every one of them was a gem. Especially those 10 assists. Is it just me or are you also watching his stats during every game to see if he's going to get another triple-double? The 10 assists were pure beauty. UCLA executed some great ball movement offensively, especially with some excellent interior passing, to create some easy shots. Anderson flashed to the top of the key a couple of times and laid off some beautiful passes to teammates under the basket. But it just wasn't Anderson either; Zach LaVine had some equally pretty assists in this game, particularly on driving and dishing. He also was the first or second pass in combination with Anderson to create an easy basket for a teammate. Watching Anderson get 10 assists and LaVine get six, many times while playing together at the same time, was, well, fun to watch. Even Adams got in on the pass party, getting off a couple of very nice assists.
The beneficiary of all of this great, non-selfish passing was our boy Tony Parker. He finished with a career-high 22 points – in just 28 minutes – along with 7 rebounds. It was one of a few best games Parker has had at UCLA, and it's very enjoyable to watch him succeed after he wallowed a bit last season and early this season. Like I said, he was the beneficiary of some great ball movement by his teammates, but give him credit, he was in the right place at the right time, which isn't always as easy as it might look, and he got 5 offensive rebounds, that led to some putbacks. He also benefitted by Stanford's center, Stefan Nastic, being in foul trouble in the first half, not playing much and then never getting in the flow of the game. But even if Parker's post moves are still a bit rough, with him on the court it gives UCLA the post dimension it doesn't have with anyone else on the roster. The Wears are almost exclusively outside, face-up shooters and, while that's good, that's not primarily what you want your bigs to be offensively. UCLA was clearly trying to feed Parker in this one, with Nastic on the bench, and it paid off, and it gave UCLA an inside-outside element to its offense it very rarely has had in years.
The game started out a bit worrisome, with UCLA offensively being out-of-sync and taking too-quick shots without that ball movement. But with about 10 minutes left in the first half, UCLA got some stops and then started moving and sharing the ball on offense, and it had a 14-point lead toward the end of the first half. That unselfishness and dedication to team play carried over to the second half. The Bruins seemed to lose some focus toward the end, which is a little worrisome, but still kept it together enough to not allow Stanford to really threaten.
The elephant in the room that needs to be discussed is the clearly more effective line-up that was utilized for a longer stretch in this game. Powell, LaVine, Adams, Anderson and Parker played together for some decent amount of time in this game, and it was almost like a different team in that UCLA uniform. First, that team's athleticism is considerably boosted, which makes us not recognize it as a UCLA team from earlier this year or the past several years. Because of that, with Powell and LaVine both playing defense, this team is by far the best defensive team UCLA could put on the floor. Yes, the Wears are providing better help D, to their credit, but having the athleticism of Powell and LaVine in the game is key since it's the backcourt's first line of defense. Anderson, then, is far more effective guarding the opposing four – and generally closer to the basket to rebound, which he's so good at doing (he had six defensive rebounds against Stanford). Parker, too, has shown some good post D, being the most physical on the team, and a better understanding how to play defense in the post, while also getting better at help. Then, that lineup offensively is just far too fun to watch. When LaVine found Anderson at the high post with a quick pass, and then Anderson quickly scooped a pass to Parker or Adams under the basket that was some pretty basketball. Or when Anderson hits LaVine on one of those lightning-quick curls for a pull-up. Perhaps the best element here is that LaVine is getting more confident in driving, and he's not just trying to go up to draw fouls but keeping his feet on the floor and finding teammates for dishes.
If there is one glaring issue that you would take away from this game, it's this: Why aren't we seeing this line-up more? To Steve Alford's credit, he went to this line-up for the longest time he ever has in this game, so he might be coming around to it. There are probably a couple of factors that might be slowing down its more extensive use – Alford has shown a tendency to be a bit conservative in making personnel moves, and there is that one pesky issue that this lineup would take away minutes from Bryce Alford. We'll take some little victories in terms of players' minutes as we can get them, though; in this game Powell (28), LaVine (30) and Parker (28) all played more minutes than Bryce (21). In fact, the last two games LaVine has played 30 minutes in each, the most he has all season. Parker's 28 minutes and Powell's 28 minutes were both their second-highest minutes in a game this season.
This isn't a hate fest on Bryce, by any means. As we've said many times, he definitely has a role to play on this team, and in this program over the next 3 ½ years. But there are a couple of factors currently at play here: 1) He is clearly struggling as of late, not only in his shooting, but in his ability to create and find his teammates offensively, and 2) while you have to factor in that there's bound to be some improvement from Bryce over the next three years, he's plainly limited. He'll get a bit better defensively as he gets more acclimated to playing college basketball, but it will be a challenge for him to ever be a great defender on this level, since he's limited by his lateral quickness. It's clear that Alford employs the zone much of the time to protect Bryce. The man D has continued to get better and is clearly the defense UCLA needs to use to win with this team, except for an occasional switch-up to zone to keep an opposing offense honest and perhaps conserve some energy in spots. Again, as we've said, if Bryce played more within himself, didn't try to force a drive to nowhere, we'd be fine with him taking his open shot and even missing it, as he has been doing the last three games. He's proven this season that he can be a very effective complementary offensive element with his outside shooting (he's shooting 43% from three, with having made just one three-pointer in the last four games) and it's good that he continues to take shots when he has a good look in the rhythm of the offense.
What we're saying: It'd be interesting to see how different this team would be if Bryce's minutes were reduced from the 20-ish he's playing now to, say, 12, and give those other 8 minutes to the most effective line-up.
Again, to Alford's credit, he has shown he's getting it a bit. Bryce's minutes have clearly been reduced in the last three games, averaging 20 minutes per game as opposed to the three previous when he averaged 26 minutes. The flash of offense that superior line-up showed – and the athleticism on defense – is something were sure isn't getting lost on Alford. The advancement here, in this game, was LaVine's point-guard-like ability to create for others, and if LaVine can do that, it takes the burden off Bryce – to where he could try to play more within himself, make the good, solid pass and look for that open spot-up. His ability to make his outside shot is key; when he makes a three it's always a dagger, since he's probably the fourth scoring option, and that's a huge element to have in your offense. If Bryce, perhaps, had some of the responsibility taken off him he might be more comfortable in making his shot. Envision UCLA's version of Arizona's Gabe York.
We said that there could be one issue, but there is, still, another, and that's rebounding. If you wondered during this game why UCLA seemingly was out-playing the Cardinal so clearly but still couldn't pull away beyond a 10-point lead, it was rebounding. Stanford out-rebounded UCLA 42-33, and that eliminated many second-chance opportunities for UCLA, limited its transition game (which is a big factor in blowing out an opponent) and also gave Stanford some putbacks on offense. Perhaps if the superior line-up is used more exclusively Parker's presence will help in rebounding, and it's bound to help getting Anderson closer to the basket.
If we're talking stats, though, one of the most astounding of the night: UCLA had just five turnovers. For a team that likes to get out in transition, is pretty young and puts the ball in the hands of some inexperienced players, that's a phenomenal stat. There aren't many times a team that gets 15 steals, forces its opponent into 19 turnovers and only commits 5 turnovers itself is going to lose, even if it's out-rebounded by 9.
One more time: a pleasure to watch.