It was written on the white board in the Bobcats’ locker room before Wednesday’s game against the Knicks in New York: “They will switch a lot. Attack mismatches.”
And boy, did the Knicks switch a lot — and in all kinds of different ways. Let’s take a look at the photo evidence.
Switch No. 1: Covering for Amar’e Stoudemire on the pick-and-roll
Stoudemire has never been a good defender, especially in space, and he returned Wednesday night after a two-game absence due to a sprained ankle. The Bobcats attacked him relentlessly on pick-and-roll plays, confident he wouldn’t have the mobility to jump out, cut off Charlotte’s point guards and then return to find his man rolling in the paint.
Here’s a still midway through a first quarter D.J. Augustin/Boris Diaw pick-and-roll:
Augustin has already dribbled around the Diaw pick, and you see Diaw rolling into the lane, where Landry Fields has come to meet him. This is typical stuff: Wing players in Fields’ position here have to crash into the lane and at least bump the roll man, who would otherwise have a clean path to the hoop. The risk is that Fields’ man, Gerald Henderson, is now open on the right wing, but the very best defenses can pull this off without yielding a wide-open jumper. The best-case scenario is for Fields to bump Diaw and then sprint back to Henderson, giving Stoudemire time to find Diaw again in the lane.
This is not what happens here:
As you can see, the Knicks switched, with Stoudemire on Henderson and poor Fields left to contain the bulky Diaw in the post. The Bobcats had their choice of mismatches, and on this play, they chose to enter the ball to Diaw, who drew a double team and dished to D.J. White for an easy layup.
Ok. This happens. The pick-and-roll is tough to defend, and sometimes it ends in a harmful switch.
Switch No. 2: The baseline switch
Here’s a play from about a minute later where Henderson and Corey Maggette cut from separate sides, meet under the hoop and have Maggette set a half-hearted screen for Henderson. Every team in the league runs this action dozens of times per game. Here’s how the Knicks handle it:
Carmelo Anthony drifts off Maggette and shifts onto Henderson, and Fields takes the bigger Maggette. There really isn’t much reason for this — Maggette has barely set a screen at all, meaning there wasn’t much of an obstacle through which either Knick had to fight. But they switched anyway, and in a clip I’d show if I still had televised access to New York games, Henderson immediately got a good look at a mid-range jumper by accelerating around a White screen, creating separation from Melo. He missed, but this is the punishment for a switch: A quicker guy gets a decent look.
But then the following happened on New York’s next possession and it dawned on me that perhaps the Knicks are switching on defense in hopes of reaping the rewards on offense:
On the right side of the lane, you see Anthony posting up Henderson, who had no chance here and compensated by fronting Melo. Boris Diaw sensed the crisis and doubled Melo, creating openings elsewhere. The Knicks could have gotten a great look here had Toney Douglas tossed an accurate entry pass. Instead, he overthrew Anthony, resulting in a turnover.
But the thinking here (assuming this kind of thinking is happening) is interesting: Why not switch defensively against Charlotte’s wing players, not exactly the league’s most threatening scorers, if doing so creates the potential for a mismatch on New York’s very next offensive possession? A Henderson miss triggered a transition opportunity, and in such moments, defenders often have to stick with the guy closest to them; Anthony rushed up the floor before Charlotte could get their defensive match-ups in order.
Maybe it was a good plan? But after the Douglas turnover, this happened:
That’s Melo’s guy, Henderson, about to slam down a transition alley-oop from Maggette. Henderson ran hard after the turnover, and neither Fields nor Douglas (the two Knick defenders who got back on defense first) knew who should take him. Watch the clip, and you’ll see some pointing and hear some communication, but Henderson ran free anyway. The confusion was understandable; Fields had been attached to Maggette since the initial switch two possessions ago, and Douglas was generally assigned to Augustin, who is next to Maggette in the above photo.
Anthony has long been a serial switcher on off-ball screens, so it’s tempting to blame Melo and chalk all of this up to his usual point-and-switch routine. But it wasn’t just Melo on Tuesday night. In the middle of the third quarter, with Melo on the bench, the Bobcats had Augustin (guarded by Douglas) set a simple back screen for Henderson on the right sideline:
You can see Douglas and Iman Shumpert, Henderson’s initial defender, sandwiching Augustin as Henderson, a blur of movement, headed for the baseline and eventually the other side of the floor. By attaching himself to Augustin (and later pointing at Henderson), Shumpert was acting under the assumption the Knicks would switch here, with Douglas leaving Augustin to chase Henderson. But Douglas didn’t seem to have made the same assumption, and he hesitated for a beat, losing both momentum and Henderson:
Henderson is gone, and he’s about to curl around Boris Diaw’s big body, catch a little shovel pass, take one big bounce to set himself and nail an open jumper.
The Knicks have done a decent amount of switching this season, both on and off the ball, but never as much as they did Tuesday night against Charlotte. That would lead you to believe it was part of the coaching staff’s game plan rather than the sort of ad-lib switching Melo has engaged in for most of his career. Maybe the coaches thought it was a low-risk way of engineering mismatches on subsequent New York possessions, as mentioned above. Maybe it was a way to ease Stoudemire’s recovery.
It’s also tempting to point at Mike Woodson, New York’s new assistant coach reportedly brought in to stress defense. Woodson coached the Hawks for six years, and during the latter half of that stint, Atlanta became known league-wide for switching on defense more than any team. But that had more to do with Atlanta’s personnel than any pro-switching stance from Woodson. The Hawks had a point guard, Mike Bibby, who couldn’t stay in front of anyone, and they had several tall-but-not-giant athletic types in Joe Johnson, Al Horford and Josh Smith, each of whom could credibly defend point guards for short stretches and switch assignments among themselves.
The Knicks have Bibby, but they otherwise don’t have this kind of personnel. They have a true center in Tyson Chandler, a decent (if overrated) defender at point guard in Douglas and two star scorers who have been defensive liabilities throughout their careers. Maybe last night was an early season experiment to see if over-switching might be something to consider in the long run. If it was, it didn’t work.