Sebastian Pruiti from NBA Playbook wondered whether the Mavericks unearthed how the rest of the league should defend Rajon Rondo. Read his post (NOW!), it’s great. Then return here for my own analysis to each of his points.
How did the Mavericks do it, according to Pruiti? And can every team do it?
1. Sag off Rondo and chase shooters:
Though most NBA teams sag off Rondo, many people have questioned that theory. I have related it to a quarterback in the pocket. If a defense doesn’t get pressure on the QB, he’s free to pick it apart at will. The more time receivers have to get open, the easier a QB’s job is. Rondo is very similar to a quarterback, mostly because he’s almost always looking to pass. If you don’t get pressure on him, he’ll find receivers.
The Mavs, according to Pruiti, decided to sag off Rondo. But there was a difference: they also did a phenomenal job of chasing shooters. The Mavericks ran the Celtics off the three-point arc all night, forcing contested mid-range jumpers. The Celtics shot only eight three-pointers against the Mavericks, and Ray Allen only managed two attempts. Even though Rondo was still afforded time to find open shooters, few were available.
2. Keep Rondo out of the lane
Most teams want keep Rondo out of the lane, but the Mavericks took it one step further: they designed their whole defense to keep Rondo from acheiving paint touches. How, you ask? Pruiti came up with two ways.
- Switching Screens – I don’t think I need to explain what switching screens is. But the Mavericks are able to switch more effectively than most teams for two reasons. 1) Jason Kidd is a big point guard (both height and strength), as Pruiti mentioned. If Kidd switches onto a big man, he is able to at least bother a post-up. A team like the Magic, with the diminutive Jameer Nelson, couldn’t afford to switch big-to-Rondo screens. And 2) the Mavericks have versatile pieces. Shawn Marion and Caron Butler have the quickness and length to bother Rondo, at least a little. Even Tyson Chandler has the athleticism to keep Rondo in front of him, at least occasionally. Not every team has the option to switch, because most defenders aren’t so versatile.
- Attention, attention, attention – The Mavs’ main goal, said Pruiti, was to keep Rondo from getting into the paint. Thus they were more than willing to send two, and sometimes three, defenders Rondo’s way. This strategy may seem somewhat counterintuitive. Since Rondo is a pass-first, pass-second type of point guard, sending multiple defenders at him would seem to leave more of Rondo’s teammates open. But the extra defenders actually had a positive effect for the Mavericks, the same effect why a lot of people argue that more teams should pressure Rondo: the increased attention limited his passing lanes. He had a difficult time finding open teammates through the sea of long arms surrounding him at all times. Of course, this tactic only works if defensive rotations are impressive. The Mavericks, owners of the NBA’s 3rd-most efficient defense, have great rotations. They can afford to send two players Rondo’s way, knowing help defense will limit the effectiveness of the left-open Celtics. Not every team has enough faith in its rotations that it can afford to pay Rondo so much attention.
3. Force the passback
What’s a passback? Pruiti offers an example:
Notice in this play how Ray Allen was open for a split second under the hoop. Normally Rondo would be able to find Allen. But because Tyson Chandler is a long, athletic big man who does a decent job keeping Rondo in front of him, Rondo can’t find a passing lane. He is forced to pass the ball back to Kevin Garnett, who looks to be open. But the Mavericks’ quick rotations, again, force a tough midrange shot. Garnett shoots those better than most, but even Garnett shoots only 45% on long twos. Additionally, Pruiti notes, forcing backwards passes icreases the likelihood of steals and runouts.
The real key is Chandler’s athleticism. Rondo can blow by most big men, but Chandler’s quickness presents a unique challenge. Rondo chose to flatten out rather than attack, and the pass to KG was born. Of course, that pass often works. KG makes a living off midrange jumpers. But it isn’t necessarily the most efficient shot. Not only does KG shoot just 45%, but that shot almost never results in free throws.
So would the Mavericks’s strategy work for all teams?
It depends. Does it work best for them? Yes, it does. But not every team has the proper personnel to switch, and not every team is attentive enough to detail to put this strategy into motion. The Mavericks were able to make their strategy work because 1) They have a big point guard, 2) they have versatile wings, 3) they have a mobile center, and 4) they are well-coached.
Can every team defend Rondo this way? No. Not successfully, at least. But some teams might be better off giving the Mavericks’ blueprint a shot, especially after the final 7:24 of the Mavericks game brought nothing but Celtics offensive chaos.
Then again, Rondo still notched 11 points, 15 assists and six rebounds against the Mavs. There is more than one way to skin a cat, but some cats are almost impossible to skin.