As it’s somehow cathartic, I’ll probably write a few postmortems following Thursday night’s Carolina loss to Duke. I’ll definitely do one that breaks down the Devils’ 13 made 3s by how they were created and which Carolina defenders were responsible. I’m planning to highlight Seventh Woods’ high-quality first-half minutes, too, in more detail. To start, however, I’ll simply focus on late-game execution—a common theme here at The Secondary Break after a close game. Even in its close wins, UNC’s crunch-time execution (on both ends) has often left plenty to be desired. That was the case again on Thursday.
Let’s recap it possession-by-possession, starting right after Nate Britt split a pair of free throws to give the Heels a 71-70 lead with 6:50 remaining in the game.
Carolina’s lineup was Berry-Britt-Jackson-Maye-Meeks.
DUKE1 (71-72): With Grayson Allen on the bench with four fouls, Duke ran a floppy set for Luke Kennard to isolate him against Britt on the right wing. He used his five-inch, 27-pound size advantage to drive against a well-positioned Britt and simply shoot over him. Kennedy Meeks was a step late on his help-side rotation, and lacked the vertical lift to challenge Kennard’s release once it was in the air. It banked in to give the Devils a lead—the 17th and final lead change of the contest, as it turned out.
UNC1 (71-72): Carolina ran its freelance passing game after just a cursory attempt to execute its secondary break. Meeks, fronted by a hard-working Amile Jefferson, was unable to receive a post entry pass, so Britt called for “Fist” (the Heels’ high screen set) with about 15 seconds left on the shot clock. Maye came up set a screen for Britt, then popped to the left wing. Britt, isolated on Jayson Tatum after Duke switched the screen, settled for an elbow jumper off the dribble with five seconds on the clock. He missed, and is now shooting 17.4% (4-23) on mid-range pull-ups, 13.3% (2-15) in the last six seconds of the clock, and 19.4% (7-36, including 2-21—9.5%—on 2-pointers) in the last 12 seconds of the shot clock. I’d question whether a two-man game with Britt and Maye was Carolina’s best option in a possession this big.
DUKE2 (71-72): Duke came right back to its floppy set, again choosing the option of Kennard coming off a right-block Jefferson screen to get its top scorer a touch. This time, Meeks and Britt switched the screen with Meeks forcing a tough off-hand miss in the paint for Kennard. With the smaller Britt switched on to him, Jefferson was easily able to grab the offensive board but, luckily for the Heels, missed an open tip-in.
UNC2 (71-72): Meeks grabbed the defensive board and quickly threw an outlet to Berry to start Carolina’s break. Although Berry didn’t have numbers (it was a 2-on-2 that quickly crowded into a 3-on-3), he attacked the front of the rim and had his shot blocked by Frank Jackson. Though this wasn’t a prime transition opportunity, I don’t mind Berry attacking here and trying to finish/draw a foul.
DUKE3 (71-72): This time, Duke ran another NBA staple: the horns set. It iso’ed Tatum on the right elbow after making the horns entry to him. Using a slick spin move, Tatum was able to create space against Justin Jackson for a step-back jumper. He missed a clean look, with Berry grabbing the defensive board.
UNC3 (71-72): With the Heels again running their freelance motion, Berry waved Maye off the right block and called Meeks over to that spot. With Jefferson again fronting to deny the post entry (and effectively sealed off), Berry was able to drive baseline on Kennard and draw the fourth foul on a helping Duke big man. This was good, smart basketball by Berry, and an aggressive drive to create contact. The only bad news: he missed the front-end of the 1-and-1. With his 3-of-5 showing from the line on Thursday, Berry actually dropped from first (85.0%) to sixth (84.4%—fractions below Marcus Paige) on Carolina’s career free throw percentage leaderboard (among Heels with 50+ made FTs in their careers).
At the 4:49 mark, Theo Pinson and Kenny Williams checked in for Maye and Britt, as the Heels went small with Pinson at the 4. Allen also checked in Duke, returning with four fouls.
DUKE4 (71-75): Duke used a simple pin-down screen from Jefferson to isolate Kennard against Williams on the right wing. Kennard attacked off the dribble, but was pretty well-contained by Williams. He used his signature shot fake/spin in the paint, drawing the attention of an over-helping Pinson and allowing a kick-out to an open Tatum in the right corner. Although Tatum is not a great 3-point shooter (just 31.6% with 18 made 3s on the season), it was probably a poor decision by Pinson to commit to this level of help defense in the paint (since Kennard was contained). This 3 to make it a two-possession game was an absolute dagger.
UNC4 (71-75): Another freelance possession for the Heels: this time, Berry had Allen (and his four fouls) isolated on the right wing. Instead of choosing to attack, Berry opted to hit a curling Williams who was coming around a Jackson screen at the top of the key. Williams used that screen to create a drive-and-kick opportunity, hitting Berry on the right wing for a deep 3 attempt. Although Berry can hit big, deep 3s (and, in fact, is especially dangerous from the right wing), he missed this one. Hindsight being 20-20, one could argue that Berry should have taken the foul-plagued Allen off the dribble. Had Berry hit one of his patented big 3s, though, there wouldn’t be much grumbling about this possession.
DUKE5 (71-77): After a non-shooting foul was called on Berry (on what was nearly a clean help-side steal, in my opinion) led to the under-4 timeout, Duke entered the ball from its own baseline. Carolina played its typical BLOB defense (“size”—in this case Pinson— on the ball with a tight diamond zone behind it, then scrambling to match up after the ball’s entered), leading to its typical mismatches (Williams (and ultimately Jackson) on Jefferson, Meeks on Tatum, Pinson on Allen). Duke went into its horns action again, this time with Allen feeding Jefferson at the right elbow. Allen immediately followed his pass to receive a hand-off from Jefferson, who stood Pinson up with a solid screen. Jackson, defending Jefferson after the BLOB chaos, didn’t hedge or switch the exchange, giving Allen a free lane to the rim for an uncontested dunk (Williams was a half-step late on his help rotation, but would have allowed a kick-out left-corner 3 to Kennard even if it was on time; Jackson’s inability to slow down Allen at all doomed this one from the start).
UNC5 (74-77): For the first time in this sequence, Carolina ran a set play—not surprisingly, something from its box series. There was poor timing on the screens and cuts here, and nothing useful materialized from the set (after which, the Heels were basically running freelance again). Jackson drew a help defender following a left-wing drive, kicking out to Williams who filled in at the left wing. He turned down a look at a catch-and-shoot 3, instead opting for a mid-range jumper off the dribble (after potentially pushing off on Matt Jones). Tatum came over to block Williams’ jumper, with the resulting loose ball fortuitously ending up in Jackson’s hands on the left wing. Jackson immediately knocked down a deep, 24-foot 3 from his preferred location. A big shot, for sure: but more a function of good luck than good execution. After being extremely tentative all game on the offensive end, this was a strange time for Williams to decide to create his own shot.
After cutting the lead back to one possession, Roy Williams called a timeout with 2:57 left and re-inserted Britt for Williams.
DUKE6 (74-77): The Devils went right back to its horns action, and again used the hand-off action between Allen and Jefferson on the right elbow. This time, Meeks (a much more experienced defender at the 5) immediately switched the exchange to cut off Allen’s straight-line drive. Meeks did a nice job of defending in space, forcing Allen to attempt a tough step-back 3 from the right corner. Although Allen can (and did) hit some tough 3s, this one was well short. The long rebound bounced just past the reach of a crashing Pinson, allowing Jones to beat Britt to the loose ball to give Duke a second chance. After the offensive reset, Duke ran its floppy set to get Kennard another right-wing touch on Britt. It was defended well (with help from Pinson), forcing Kennard to quickly swing the ball to Allen at the top of the key. Allen drove a recovering Pinson, but Berry reached in as a help defender to get the strip/force the turnover. This was a really good defensive possession by the Heels—strong help-and-recovery by Pinson, and quick hands by Berry to get the steal.
UNC6 (75-77): After creating the live-ball turnover, Berry led a 3-on-1 primary break opportunity in the other direction. He was (wisely) fouled by Kennard prior to the shot, going to the line for two with UNC in the double bonus. Berry missed the first, but hit the second to cut the Duke lead to two points.
DUKE7 (75-77): Duke ran a set to isolate Tatum on the right block against Pinson. The Devils again got exactly what they wanted on the offensive end (although I don’t think the Tatum-Pinson matchup was as much as a post mismatch as they thought). Pinson defended Tatum’s post move well (with some help from Meeks), forcing him to throw the ball wildly off the glass. That acted as a pass to himself, allowing him to grab the offensive board. After getting Meeks up in the air with a pump fake, Tatum luckily blew the put-back dunk and was called for a violation for basket interference while on the rim.
UNC7 (75-77): Down two with a chance to tie or take the lead, Carolina again called for a box set. This time, it used a Britt backscreen to run Meeks from the left elbow to the right block. No one seemed especially surprised by this action, and Jefferson was able to again deny the post entry from Berry by fighting to front the post (despite Meeks working hard and creating a pretty good seal with a wide base; this was probably open briefly if Berry was a better/more confident entry passer). After turning down the entry, Berry hit Pinson on the right wing. Isolated on Tatum, Pinson immediately attacked off the bounce, missing a contested, off-balance layup after a slight bump. This was very similar to the “and-1” Pinson had earlier in the half—certainly the type of drive that he’s able to finish. Even so, I’m not sure that Pinson (especially in his rusty, still-recovering form) is who should be taking key shots for the Heels in the final two minutes of a one-possession game.
DUKE8 (75-80): Using a ball screen by Jefferson on the left wing, Allen hit a huge 3 off the dribble to extend Duke’s lead to five points with 80 seconds left. Meeks flat-hedged this screen to prevent Allen getting into the paint. Jackson correctly fought over the top of the ball screen, with the intent to run Allen off of the 3-point line (and, in conjunction with Meeks’ soft hedge, force either a mid-range jumper or offensive reset). Without being in the huddle, it appeared as if Carolina played this ball screen correctly (i.e., how it’s been defending them most of the season). Jackson certainly made a concerted effort to get over the top of a solid Jefferson screen. Allen has a really quick release, and this one’s probably just in the category of “good offense beats good defense” (although one could argue that the Heels should have blitzed/trapped the screen to force it out of Allen’s hands).
UNC8 (77-80): Looking to attack quickly in secondary/freelance, Berry took Allen off the dribble and fouled him out with a strong drive. Berry knocked in both free throws to again cut the deficit down to a single possession.
DUKE9 (77-81): After a Carolina halfcourt trap that was easily broken by Duke, the Devils again got into their horns set. This time, UNC trapped Jefferson following the right-elbow entry. He was forced to make a deep (beyond the 3-point arc) hand-off to Kennard, who was also trapped by the Heels. All that scrambling led to a wide-open Tatum near the top of the key. Luckily (or not; he is just a 32% 3-point shooter), he missed the open 3 which resulted in another long rebound. This time, Matt Jones simply beat Berry for a true 50-50 ball, giving Duke the ball back with just a two-second differential between game and shot clocks. After letting a few seconds tick away, Meeks fouled Frank Jackson to set up a 1-and-1 opportunity for the freshman. He made the first, but missed the second.
UNC9 (77-81): Berry used a really clever hesitation dribble (faking a step-back 3) to explode to the rim. However, Jefferson’s timely help rotation forced him to settle for a contested reverse lay-up. Given that Jefferson was playing with four fouls, going directly into his body would have probably been the right play here. Either way, Jefferson’s help defense made this a tough finish for Berry (who’s really struggled in ACC play to finish at the rim against length). This missed lay-up (and subsequent Tatum defensive rebound) effectively ended the game, as Tatum was fouled immediately and made both shots to extend Duke’s lead to six with 16 seconds left.
A couple of concluding thoughts:
- Duke’s really good. Just like in 2010, it has three high-usage scorers (Allen, Kennard, Tatum) that it runs almost the entire offense through. It also has two elite role players (Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek in 2010; Jones and Jefferson this year) who don’t care at all about getting shots, but are willing to do all the dirty work (screens, loose balls, outstanding defense) for the Devils. Obviously Allen/Kennard/Tatum got most of the glory and headlines (and certainly points) last night. But I was really impressed by all the little things that Jones and Jefferson did to secure this victory for Duke. Those guys are consummate senior leaders. I feel gross now after writing this; back soon after a quick shower.
- Say what you will about Coach K’s NBA connections, but his NBA-heavy sets are way more effective than Carolina’s stale box formations, in my opinion. As detailed above, Duke ran a steady diet of “floppy” and “horns” down the stretch to consistently create advantageous opportunities for its best scorers. The Heels’ box sets didn’t create anything useful, and the freelance motion was still riddled with questionable shot selection and decision-making (most notably, the late-clock jumper by Britt and Williams’ mid-range jumper). I’m not wild about micro-managing games down the stretch (like K was doing last night), but you can’t argue with the looks that Duke was creating. Even when they missed, it was a good opportunity for one of its go-to options.
- Carolina will need to outscore Duke in Chapel Hill. I can’t see either team getting consistent stops (especially with Hicks back on the court), so it might once again come down to late-game execution. UNC’s freelance stuff can work (especially if the Heels can get back to owning the offensive glass), but I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more sets designed to get Jackson the ball in space or on the move (e.g., curling off an elbow screen).
More on Carolina-Duke over the next couple of days…