My cousins and I are a bunch of odd ducks. We watch poker on ESPN and implement some of the sayings into our own vocabulary. For example, we were watching a special on the late, great (and also cracked out) Stu Ungar, and he was quoted as saying something like this: “As soon as the antes come out, I become a pitbull. And once I do, everyone should be afraid.” We started saying that phrase all the time. Any time somebody gets aggressive, whether it be in our own poker game, during a night of drinking, or hitting on a girl, we say “Well, I guess the antes are out.”
Almost every time the Celtics play defense, the antes are out. They kill themselves to rotate, sprint halfway across the court to contest shooters, and bust their asses to keep the opposing team from getting any type of easy look. It helped that Tom Thibodeau was a defensive Will Hunting, of course, but the Celtics stop their opponents because they are willing to execute the schemes, because they have the right mentality. Because, like Rocky against Ivan Drago, to beat the Celtics you are going to have to kill them. And to kill them, you must be willing to die yourself.
That’s why I love the changes Larry Drew is making in Atlanta. Last season, the Hawks took advantage of their athleticism and versatility by switching a lot of screens. This year, the Hawks will take advantage of their athleticism by fighting through those same screens. A small switch, to most observers, but one that will should change Atlanta’s entire defensive mentality.
On the surface, switching screens made sense for Atlanta. A lot of Hawks have similar body types and athleticism. Even their two big men, Josh Smith and Al Horford, possess the agility to defend guards on the perimeter. Switching screens, in the eyes of the immaculately facil hair’ed Mike Woodson, was the right move. His team’s versatility guaranteed that mismatches would be few and far between, even with the switching. But Woodson overlooked one aspect of switching almost every screen; it’s taking the easy way out, and it sets a lackadaisical tone.
Instead of using the switched screens as an advantage, the Hawks used them as a way to catch some rest. As the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Michael Cunningham remarks, “You could see that happen with the Hawks last season. Players became so reliant on the switches that they tended to relax in anticipation of screens. Why fight through picks to stay with your man when he can be always be passed off to a teammate?” And that mentality doesn’t just stop at screens. When players relax on one aspect of defense, they stop being on their toes. They stop working their hardest. They lose their edge. It’s that edge that Drew is looking to re-instill when he forces his players to become accountable, to fight through the damn screen themselves.
What Drew is attempting to accomplish in Atlanta, Lawrence Frank is charged with maintaining in Boston. Filling Tom Thibodeau’s shoes is not what one would call “easy.” We all realize that. But as long as Frank devises a defense that will keep the Celtics’ intensity through the roof, as long as he puts the Celtics in positions where their own extra effort will allow them to force difficult shots, he will have done his job.
The antes will be out.