There’s always the argument about whether blowing out a horrible opponent helps a team or gets them into bad habits.
That was just about the only thing going through my mind last night when UCLA clobbered Washington, 98-66.
That is, well, besides the status of T.J. Leaf’s ankle.
And whether or not Lonzo Ball would get his first triple-double of the season.
There were absolutely moments in that game when it broke down into street ball a bit. Washington likes to run, and you put that together with UCLA’s tendency to occasionally take bad, quick shots and it makes for sequences that weren’t much fun to watch.
But this UCLA team has this uncanny ability to play out of control at times but then rein itself back in. It’s almost as if it gives itself a few moments just to screw around and then says to its collective self, “Okay, that was enough. Let’s play some real basketball again.”
You’d want to give Ball credit for the reining-in, since so much of the approach, culture and success of this year’s team is his doing. But he’s just as much a culprit as anyone else in terms of launching some bad shots on occasion.
Isaac Hamilton’s foray into bad basketball can seemingly come at anytime. With him it’s more of a case where you feel he thinks he needs to do something to get himself on track – and his conclusion is to take marginal shots.
Aaron Holiday also has no real rhyme or reason to when he’s taking a good shot or forcing a bad shot. His decision-making is a little different in that most of his bad decisions are drives to nowhere rather than just bad looks from the outside.
The guy, actually, who did most of the reining-in last night was Bryce Alford. Bryce has a pattern to his offensive game, and we’ve noted this before: He’ll be playing fairly under control, and then there will be a segment of the game when Bryce forces some shots. It’s almost as if he’s testing himself to see what kind of shooting night he’s capable of having. It’s strange, too, because, like in this game, he’ll be picture-perfect in taking good shots in the flow of the offense, then the game gets a little wound-up and Bryce takes some off-balance, quick threes that make you look at the shot clock to see if it was about to expire. He then has that little lull of cold shooting, but then he either stops shooting as much or he lights it up. It’s almost an ADHD-type of mindset to shooting.
In this game, though, when UCLA was getting wound-up and most of the team was making bad decisions in their shot selection, including Bryce, there were then a few possessions when Bryce slowed down the game, and got UCLA into its halfcourt offense. It worked, too; UCLA fell into its habit about 2/3s of the way through the first half, combining that with some poor defense (which is usually the case), and the Bruins were hovering around a 15-point lead. I know it appears that UCLA blew open this game because of its transition scoring, and that definitely contributed. But the force that really beat down Washington and blew up UCLA’s margin was more well-executed offensive possessions rather than quick, bad shots in transition. While the ball being pushed up the court and finished with flashy passes and alley-oops are exciting, watching UCLA’s offense execute in the halfcourt with the extra-pass mentality and good movement away from the ball is, really, the element of this team that will sustain it in post-season play. It has a much better chance of beating quality opponents by executing in its halfcourt offense than it does by running them off the court.
It wasn’t entirely Bryce who got the team executing in its halfcourt offense; it definitely was Ball, too. And perhaps the reining-in impulse derives from Ball’s underlying philosophical change in approach to the game he’s brought to UCLA this year.
If we’re talking about what takeaway there was from this game, and whether it’s good or bad for a team to blow out its opponent, this was definitely a very strong takeaway. In past years, UCLA still might have blown out such a poor Washington team, but they probably would have done it very sloppily and littered with bad shot selection and no reining-in. It’s a very good thing that this UCLA team seems to know when it can go a little over-the-top and take some bad shots, and that it’s appropriate perhaps to do it against a team like Washington that’s not going to pose any real threat in the game. And it’s a very good thing that this team seems to get when it needs to rein it in and get some good offensive possessions.
What was probably the most impressive stat, too, was that, with UCLA getting up and down and playing pretty loose in transition, UCLA had just eight turnovers, and Ball and Bryce had 0 between the two of them. That’s right – UCLA’s two starting guards, who combined to play 61 minutes, and with at least 20 of those minutes running around in transition, didn’t commit one turnover.
It was a pretty good sign, too, that UCLA fell into its bad habit of playing poor defense in a game like this, but then pulled itself out of it. It mostly did it with its zone defense. In the first half, when UCLA went to the zone, it was the force that kept Washington scoreless in nine straight trips down the court and forced UW’s offense into five straight turnovers. With how effective UCLA’s 3-2 trapping zone has been, there has to be a number of coaching staffs around the country that are looking ahead toward the Tournament and starting to watch film on this zone and consider how they can beat it. The one element that perhaps could still develop with the zone is, really, the timing of its deployment. Steve Alford, to his credit, has done a great job in creating this defense, with Lonzo Ball at the top of it to harass and step into passing lanes, but Alford is predictable in his coaching, with his subbing patterns for instance, and when he institutes the zone in every game. It’d be really great to see the zone happen at moments other than the set times Alford has for it just so opposing teams can’t anticipate it as much – like UCLA should perhaps start a game in the zone, just to disrupt the opposing team.
It’s tough not to go an entire game analysis, though, without at least one paragraph of Ball superlatives. This was one of his closest opportunities at getting that elusive triple-double this season. It seems that he can either get double digits in assists or rebounds but not both, almost like, in only 40 minutes of a game, he has to put more effort into one or the other. And that’s not a slight in anyway; it’s really a statement that there is only so much Lonzo Ball excellence to be spread around a court. We’ve talked about how Ball has affected the offensive culture of the team and instilled a passing-is-fun mentality, which is probably the most profound Ballian force that has catapulted this team to No. 3 in the country and a to be national contender this year. But for pure fun-watching, there are spectacular sequences in every game now when Ball puts together some things that are other-wolrdly. While he had some very good moments before this, in the second half of the Washington game, with the game securely in the bag, he had two sequences that, as a Bruin fan, you should re-watch a few times.
18:45 off the weave he lays in on a sweeping move.
18:35, gets a steal off UW offensive rebound, flips an over-the-shoulder pass to Bryce downcourt, who throws a pretty no-look bounce pass to a streaking Ball for a lay-in. The crowd sound is kind of one of awe after that.
17:02 tips a Washington pass to himself for a steal, has a patty-cake moment with Alford in transition over-passing before setting up Alford for a baseline jumper.
15:48 Alford reaches in and tips away the ball, and it rolls to Ball for a dunk.
13:04 Ball throws a deep ball on a go-route to Hamilton who converts.
12:54 comes out of nowhere to steal Washington in-bound, passes it out, gets it immediately back and hits a three.
12:15 hits a three in the corner.
11:27 tip-passes a defensive rebound to Holiday to start a break, Hamilton throws Ball an alley-oop which, falling out of bounds, he tip-passes to Ike Anigbogu for a dunk.
10:09 in transition, alley-oop to Anigbogu.
As it’s written, it just doesn’t do it justice.
An interesting point: Being at the top of the zone seems to help Ball, in many ways. He is completely hunting steals, and being that top point man in the zone makes him really active, and it very much disrupts opposing offenses. Washington set screens on him, and you can probably expect other opponents to do the same against him in the zone, so it will be a matter of how Ball plays through those screens and the help inside.
As blow-outs go, overall, it was a fun game to watch. As I’ve said, there are times when blow-outs aren’t fun, with UCLA taking bad shots and playing sloppily, but this wasn’t the case. With so little turnovers committed and UCLA getting 33 points in transition compared to Washington’s 5, and Ball being sublime once again, it was a fun-watching blow-out.
Of course, it has to be said: Washington is really bad. When UCLA was ahead by an insurmountable amount and not really closing out on shooters, the Huskies had some wide-open shots they just couldn’t hit.
Bryce had one of his better games of the season, going through his usual pattern of testing his shooting eye for that night, and it tested out well, with Bryce scoring 17 points in the second half on 4 of 6 from three and finishing with 29. And again, no turnovers for the night.
Gyorgy Goloman stepped in and picked up the minutes of the absent Leaf, playing 26 minutes, scoring 8 points and getting 6 rebounds with 3 blocks. He had a couple of nice offensive moves and did a good job defensively. Goloman isn’t a Pac-12 level starter, but he has shown that he can play a role coming off the bench, especially with some good post defense.
And that leads us to the elephant in the room. We don’t have any details on Leaf’s ankle, other than what Alford said last night in the post-game interviews: “We hope it’s good…crutches, boot, let him rest it. Just a sprain. Not a bad one.” If you had to look at the bright side, it probably came at a good time; Leaf could conceivably sit until the semi-final of the Pac-12 Tournament, which is Friday, the 10th, giving him 9 days to rest it up. It goes without saying that UCLA can’t make a big NCAA run without Leaf and, in this game, we got a little glimpse of the team without Leaf or Ball on the court, which felt a little circa 2016.
There is, though, the Ballian Force.
it’s tough to come to terms with the fact that Saturday’s game against Washington State will be the last time Ball will play at Pauley Pavilion.