Brandon Knight’s aggressive defensive missteps

The Toronto Raptors gladly collared the Milwaukee defense with 116 points Monday, so it’s no surprise that they had a 20+ point scorer. But the 23 points that Kyle Lowry scored were most notable for the fact that they came on just eight shots. One big culprit was Brandon Knight‘s help defense. The object of this post is to peek at some of the plays on which Lowry took shots.

Lowry shot 6-for-8 from the field and a perfect 7-for-7 from the line. To be fair, Lowry scored 7 points with Knight on the bench, but when Knight was in the game, Lowry went 5-for-5 from the field and 3-for-3 from the line — and Brandon was the responsible party for guarding him in each and every attempt.

(Disclaimer: I like both of these players a lot, albeit in different roles. If the Bucks draft a wing player for 2014-15, and they want to roll out a starting lineup of Larry Sanders/John Henson/Stud Draftee/Giannis Antetokounmpo/Veteran point guard acquisition, then I would love for that veteran point guard to be a known producer like Lowry, who might not command top dollar on the open market. On the other hand, Brandon Knight can flat out score. He has both soft touch from spots all over the floor and the ability to go wherever he wants on it once he’s blown past his man. The Bucks were L-O-S-T on offense when he got a breather in the Memphis game.)

When opposing teams are starting a play with any kind of dribble action or high pick-and-roll stuff with the Bucks in a man-to-man defense, Knight is creeping over to bring help. The problem: the help is rarely helping, it’s not leading to turnovers, and Knight’s original defensive assignment is wide open one pass away from a free and easy jump shot.

Here’s the first instance from the game, and it’s a good example of Knight getting too focused on the ball. It starts with Lowry behind the top of the key making a pass into the corner to DeMar DeRozan. Knight immediately goes halfway to the corner, which by itself is a good move.

Screen shot 2014-01-15 at 11.27.51 AM

But then Knight gets caught up in chasing the ball as DeRozan drives along the baseline.

Screen shot 2014-01-15 at 11.34.09 AM

He might see that Jonas Valanciunas is open for a second and want to give help there, but even if Valanciunas gets a pass there, the best case scenario is that Knight fouls him and the worst case is that Knight fouls him while he finishes a dunk.

In the meantime, Lowry (not shown in the second picture) has smartly slid over from right to left to get in DeRozan’s field of vision for an easy pass. Knight tries to recover, but he’s coming from so far away that Lowry sets up and swishes the very open three-pointer.

Here is another setup for a Lowry jumper that is simply far too easy. Valanciunas sets a pick for DeRozan, who dribbles to his right. Antetokounmpo, who was guarding DeRozan, fights through the screen.

Presumably, Knight is there to help Giannis if he doesn’t get back to his man in time, but Knight doesn’t get close enough to actually challenge the dribble, doesn’t take an angle that allows his to cut off the pass, and gets too far away from Lowry to recover after the pass. By all possible accounts, it’s a mess.

It seems that part of this setup is by design. If it wasn’t, it would be hard to explain how the Bucks and Raptors repeated the same action-and-reaction so often, including the first play of the second half — which would presumably come after having had the chance to make adjustments.

Give the Raptors credit here for working to tip the Bucks’ hand: the play starts with an savyy pindown screen by Amir Johnson on Khris Middleton, forcing a switch and leaving the slow-footed Ersan Ilyasova to cover DeRozan.

Screen shot 2014-01-15 at 12.21.09 PM

But Ersan does a decent job chasing DeRozan. With Sanders floating in the paint, DeRozan doesn’t appear to be open enough to attack the rim, so his options look to be restricted to shooting a shot on the run or passing. Heck, even Giannis has lined up well on the weak side to help the helper.

Screen shot 2014-01-15 at 12.26.42 PM

But again, Knight collapses down, gets close to the ballhandler without ever getting within reach, and abandons Lowry yet again. Lowry moves to space, catches the pass from DeRozan and drops another three.

The negative results certainly are not stemming from a lack of effort. Knight fights through an initial high screen by Valanciunas, works his way over near DeRozan, then flies back in Lowry’s direction. He’s an athletic kid hustling all over on this play — and the Bucks may be directing him to apply this kind of pressure.

But at some point, it’s time to apply some math or logic to this idea. Is it better to have 1.5 guys in place to try to disrupt an opponent making a play on the run with a completely open shooter lining up for a shot (and a shot that’s worth an extra point no less), or is it better to have each defender in place working to stay with his man. Which one gives up fewer points in the long run?

Keep in mind this isn’t about sending help from Sanders. Larry’s help is 1) in the paint, 2) more likely to cause a change in possession, and 3) more than likely not going to result in his man knocking down a three-pointer.  This post is about over-helping out on the perimeter.

Take a moment to consider this tactic from the viewpoint of the 2014-15 Bucks: If John Henson and Larry Sanders turn out to be a workable tandem, as they were in the Memphis game, then this strategy fails even more miserably. The additional security of having two shotblockers down low should allow the perimeter defenders more leeway to attack and take away jump shots. Instead of gambling for turnovers and getting scorched, the Bucks should be trying to minimize catch-and-shoot opportunities, then grabbing rebounds — another Bucks’ strength if Henson and Sanders play together.

Of course, these defensive lapses could be another case of Knight’s aggression gone wrong. Multiple times this season Larry Drew has noted his point guard’s propensity for over-penetration on offense and the problems that creates for him. He can beat so many players in the league off the dribble and it’s obvious he recognizes this. Knight doesn’t play basketball like a guy who isn’t confident in what he can do on the court.

“When you have a point guard that does have that ability, you try to utilize it,” Drew said of Knight’s scoring and driving ability after Wednesday night’s loss to Memphis. “Where he has to get better at is he’s got to be a little bit more mindful of situations.”

Drew was referring to what his guard does on offense, but, unless the Bucks are asking him to unleash a very modest version of hell on ballhandlers that come within 10 feet of him, it seems like Knight has got a ways to go on both sides when it comes to situation recognition.

Categories: Play breakdowns

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  1. I noticed similar overhelping from Giannis on the perimeter as well, I’m starting to wonder if Drew’s defensive strategy is to help on everything. I like to think our on the ball defenders are decent enough with Henson back that they can play one-on-one defense.

      • How do you think Knight would fit playing primarily off the ball at 2 next year should the Bucks go after a point guard like Exum or Smart in the draft or a vet like Lowry?

  2. This is really good stuff from KL and much appreciated for growing as a fan. Along with the other fine points made above, it’s sad to see Brandon expending so much energy for such futility.
    One thing that has really surprised me about the Bucks in a troubling way is how many huge quarters they have allow by opponents of more than 30, or even 35 points. Plus, it seems like we should be much better at rebounding. I don’t know why even a bad team couldn’t do better at these two specific areas.
    One thing I found interesting in KL’s piece is the reminder that defense and rebounding are not just a matter of hustle, but of smarts. What I’m hoping is that Coach Drew rewards with minutes our guys who are willing defenders and rebounders, and then puts them in positions to succeed.