Transition Defense and Late-Game Execution

Transition Defense and Late-Game Execution

Welcome back for the third (and final) part of the Carolina vs. Kentucky series. Part I (Defending Malik Monk) and Part II (Jackson, Berry, and Guarding Ball Screens) are linked here in case you missed them. This one will focus primarily on UNC’s transition defense (and how UK’s transition opportunities were created) and Carolina’s late-game execution.

Let’s start with a summary of UNC’s transition defense. Kentucky is one of the most dangerous fast-break teams in the nation. I posted this Synergy Sports graphic in Part I, but will show it again here since it so clearly illustrates how deep and prolific UK’s backcourt has been in the open floor.

Though this data was prior to the Carolina game, Wildcat guards held down the top three positions on the national leaderboard for transition points per game. Stopping their early offense was a clear priority for the Heels. So how did they do? Let’s examine.

UNC’s Transition Defense vs. Kentucky

The Heels allowed 21 points on 14 transition possessions. Kentucky was only credited with eight fast-break points in the official box score (to Carolina’s six), but my interpretation of “transition” is (apparently) more liberal than the official scorer’s. Eight points certainly doesn’t seem bad; 21’s a little worse. Let’s break it down (chronologically) possession-by-possession to see how UK created its transition opportunities.

  1. After Jackson missed a primary-break 3, the ‘Cats pushed it right back the other way. Williams stopped the ball well in transition, forcing a contested miss by Fox. (0 points)
  2. Trying to give UNC a taste of its own medicine, UK ran immediately following a made Meeks tip-in. Williams again stopped the ball in transition, allowing Berry to strip Monk for a steal. (0 points)
  3. After blocking a Berry 3, Briscoe leaked out for an easy lay-up on the other end. This was poor shot selection by Berry (or, more accurately, an underestimate of Briscoe’s length/ability to close). (2 points)
  4. Following a missed floater by Jackson, Kentucky ran a dribble hand-off in transition. Britt stumbled badly fighting through the exchange, allowing Monk to get into the paint for an assist. This was also an “and-1” opportunity, but Kentucky missed the free throw. (2 points)
  5. Bradley missed a running hook shot with Jackson getting tied up in a battle for the offensive board. Jackson’s subsequent late recovery allowed Fox to get to the rim for a 3-point play. (3 points)
  6. Berry’s penetration led to poor floor balance after a missed Meeks lay-up, resulting in an easy alley-oop slam for Fox after he outraced Jackson down the court. (2 points)
  7. Kentucky pushed the ball after a missed Jackson 3 on the secondary break. This time, the Heels had much better defensive balance and forced Fox to miss a pull-up in transition. (0 points)
  8. Another missed Jackson 3 led to the next UK break opportunity. Monk was forced into a tough reverse layup by Williams’s strong transition defense. (0 points)
  9. After Hicks missed a face-up jumper in the secondary break and Williams was caught battling in the paint for the offensive board, the Heels were beaten down the court by Monk for a 3-point play (missed the free throw; Hicks’s fourth foul when he should have probably just conceded the lay-up). This was partially caused by a cross-match (Monk was defending Jackson on one end, but being defended by Williams on the other), as well as poor recognition by Berry as a safety. (2 points)
  10. UK again ran after a made UNC basket (a Meeks lay-up), and again took advantage of some cross-match-related confusion. Jackson was late to identify Briscoe in transition, allowing him to create a drive-and-kick 3 for Monk. (3 points)
  11. Following an early missed 3 by Britt (who then reached in for a low-probability loose-ball rebound instead of sprinting back), Berry was crossed over by Monk in the open court for an easy lay-up. Berry, playing with three fouls, made a pretty casual attempt at stopping the ball here but, even with max effort, it would have been hard to stop this Monk move without fouling. (2 points)
  12. A Bradley missed dunk on one end resulted in Maye trying to stop the ball against Fox on the other end. He predictably got to the rim easily for a lay-up, with the four-point swing pushing UK’s lead to 84-74 with 7:45 left. (2 points)
  13. Maye missed a 3-pointer following a Berry drive-and-kick; the Berry penetration led to poor floor balance, and the Heels were bailed out when UK muffed an easy 2-on-1 (Monk threw a lob that Gabriel mishandled). With under two minutes left in a 95-95 game, this seemed like a huge break at the time. (0 points)
  14. We all remember this one: Berry’s contested penetration opportunity (in which he ended up several feet out of bounds) led to a scramble situation on the other end. Williams was left with the unenviable task of stopping Fox’s dribble (probably preventing a lay-up) or covering the kick-out pass to Monk. In retrospect, he probably should have cut off the kick-out (with Jackson recovering to the paint to contest Fox’s drive). Monk, of course, knocked down the game-winning 3 over a recovering Hicks (who hustled to locate Monk after Williams stopped the ball with Berry out of the play). (3 points)

So of UK’s 14 transition opportunities, not a single one resulted via a Carolina live-ball turnover. This is a rather remarkable statistic, as live-ball TOs generally breed the juiciest fast-break opportunities of them all. Only two of UNC’s nine TOs were of the live-ball variety (both by Woods), and neither was in the open court. One, in fact, was stolen right back by Jackson for an easy Tar Heel transition hoop.

Instead, Kentucky mainly ran off of missed field goals– oftentimes missed 3s. Of UK’s 14 transition opportunities, six resulted from missed 3s, six from missed 2s, and two from made shots. A few were caused by Berry penetration– something that wings will need to be more alert for in future games against elite transition opponents. A couple were caused from UNC’s wings crashing for offensive boards, too, but that’s just the cost of doing business in Roy’s system (and why UNC currently ranks second in the nation in OR%). Although, on at least one occasion, Britt made a poor “crash vs. retreat in defensive transition” decision that led to an easy UK hoop. Cross-matches (especially with the wings) were a bit of an issue in this game, too, so UNC will need to do a better job of awareness and communication in transition.

Late-Game Execution

Though there were many important plays that preceded that point, let’s start this examination with 1:46 left in the game (right after UK botched its 2-on-1 transition lob).

  • UNC ran one of its favorite sets plays from its box formation– the “elevator doors” option for Jackson. The Heels executed it flawlessly, leading to a clean top-of-the-key 3 that Jackson knocked down to give UNC a 98-95 lead.
  • UK answered right back by running its staggered screen to create a wing iso for Monk. Williams defended it really, really well, but Monk hit an NBA-caliber shot. No execution issues here.
  • On UNC’s next trip, Berry and Hicks ran a pick-and-roll to create a UK switch (Humphries on Berry). Berry perhaps settled for a long 2-pointer over the 7-footer (although he’s great from mid-range off the dribble), but Hicks was able to easily grab the offensive rebound after the switch left a smaller defender on him. Rather than throwing up a rushed second-chance shot from the mid-paint, Hicks wisely kicked it back out for an offensive reset. Roy called for another box set from the sidelines, leading to a post entry to Hicks (following a solid Williams backscreen) and a subsequent cut by Jacks0n for the “and-1” lay-up. He missed the free throw, but a Maye back-tap gave UNC the ball with a 100-98 lead and a 13-second differential on the game and shot clocks.
  • The Heels again ran pick-and-roll action between Berry and Hicks (with about 15 on the shot clock). This time, Berry turned down the ball screen, crossing over and beating Fox. Great help by the hedging Humphries prevented Berry from reaching the rim, forcing him into a contested, wrong-foot prayer. While this may have seemed like a bad decision (and was undoubtedly a tough shot), I liked the option of running a 2-man game with Berry and Hicks. And. following the switch, Berry on Humphries seemed like an exploitable matchup for the Heels. Humphries moved his feet well and played a really good defensive possession. Sometimes you just need to tip your cap to the other guy, in my opinion. Even though Jackson had a huge game, I’ll take my chances with the ball in Berry’s hand in that situation (it should be noted that Jackson was strategically positioned in the strong-side corner for a kick-out pass, but Briscoe did a good job of not overhelping on the drive).
  • See above for how Berry’s miss turned into a scramble-situation 3 for Monk to give UK a 101-100 lead.
  • With about nine seconds left, Berry entered the ball to Hicks on the right block. This was the fifth time in the final 6:24 (when Hicks returned to the game with four fouls) that Hicks got a touch on the right block. The first four all resulted in UNC scores: 1.) pindown screen for Jackson, both UK defenders ran at the shooter resulting in an easy entry to Hicks for a drop-step layup; 2.) a secondary break entry from Berry (not dissimilar to the final possession—although deeper post position) which resulted in a Hicks leaner after he spun over his right shoulder to the middle of the paint; nice move; 3.) following a UNC side-out, the Heels ran Hicks off of a Williams backscreen to create a post touch for him (Jackson threw the entry); this one was pushed out a bit further by UK, forcing Hicks to hit a contested turnaround jumper from about 12 feet; Fox doubled off of Williams to help out here; 4.) from the box set, Hicks used the Williams backscreen to receive a Berry entry feed, then hit the slashing Jackson
    • All of that detail is to say: Carolina was having pretty good success feeding Hicks on the right block down the stretch. This time, he was again pushed further off the block by Humphries. Hicks decided to face up the taller, slower defender (probably a good choice), before quickly spinning into a contested turnaround jumper. Fox helped late (after Hicks had already begun his spin), timing it such that a kick-out pass to Berry would have been very hard to execute (since Hicks had his back to the oncoming help and was in mid-move). It ended up being a tough, well-defended shot by Humphries (whose defense was excellent in the final minute—he was probably UK’s unsung hero), but I wouldn’t classify it as a bad/low-probability opportunity.
  • To TO or not to TO? In general, I’m a fan of letting the offense attack an unset defense in situations like this. Kentucky’s defense wasn’t exactly scrambling, but would have been even more set following a timeout. It’s interesting to consider, though, what UNC might have called following a TO. Possibly something with Jackson curling off a screen at the elbow (with a second option of pick-and-roll with Berry/Hicks if the curl to Jackson was tightly defended)? Yes, I would have preferred having Jackson or Berry making the ultimate shot/pass decision. But, no, I’m not going to strongly second-guess the post entry to Hicks and the resulting opportunity it created to potentially win the game.
  • I did think the set-out set necessitating the perfect execution of the cross-court pass by Maye was a curious one. Against a defense as quick and athletic as UK’s, that’s almost impossible to pull off successfully. UNC’s run that set a handful of time in those situations (including similar ends of halves) without ever pulling it off. Though at that point, we’re probably just debating a, say 5% probability of winning vs. a <1% one.

Final Random Thoughts

  • While Isaiah Hicks’s third foul (committed while laying on the floor) was certainly questionable, and the Roy Williams technical that it prompted justifiable, the whole sequence began when Hicks left his feet unnecessarily as a help defender. Bradley had established a textbook wall on Humphries to force a really tough shot. Rather than going for a low-probability block, Hicks should have immediately located Gabriel to box him out. Brice Johnson, even as an all-American senior, had a penchant for gambling on these unlikely blocks (and sacrificing defensive rebounding position in the process). I do agree with Coach Williams that Hicks is unfairly targeted by refs at times. But he also needs to do a much better job of not putting himself into bad situations on the floor.
  • Berry’s fourth foul resulted following a BLOB in which Bradley was switched onto Fox with Berry on Adebayo (he picked up the foul trying to keep Bam off of the offensive glass). Earlier in the game, another BLOB set resulted in an identical Bradley-on-Fox mismatch, which Fox easily exploited for a crossover lay-up. The reason for all these BLOB mismatches is due to how Carolina defends baseline underneath action: putting its longest defender (or, these days, sometimes just its 4-man) on the ball then playing a matchup zone behind it (and quickly scrambling to the nearest man once the ball is entered). Teams who have done their homework have been exploiting these BLOB mismatches for years now (Virginia Tech with Malcolm Delaney was excellent at doing so). The upside is that UNC will force on occasional turnover by tipping the entry with its length. But that advantage is somewhat negated when it’s Luke Maye on the ball (as in the case when Berry picked up his fourth) rather than, say, John Henson.
  • I was watching Tony Bradley closely during his extended stints, and he did seem to clearly tire towards the end of them (RoyW mentioned that Bradley’s conditioning was still a work-in-progress). At the end of one stint, he drifted out of position (near the top of the key) and the team allowed two offensive rebounds with its center out of the paint (and not working hard to get back in it). He followed that up by immediately missing a lay-up on the other end. His missed dunk also came near the end of a nearly 5-minute stint. As good as Bradley is already, there’s certainly room for improvement as he gets in better shape/can play longer, harder stints.

11 thoughts on “Transition Defense and Late-Game Execution

  1. Great breakdown of the final possessions. Could you comment on the lack of weak side rebounding on the last shot by Hicks? Early in the game, Kennedy seemed to own the left side position on shots from the right.

    1. Good point. I’ll need to go back and re-watch that play (for the 20th time!) to comment specifically on the lack of rebounding, but one obvious use of a late-game timeout would be to substitute Bradley for Maye to maximize the likelihood of getting a second-chance hoop (although I certainly understand the flip-side of keeping Maye on the floor for improved spacing/driving lanes, too).

      Meeks had obviously fouled out by that point but Bradley, UNC’s (and the nation’s!) best offensive rebounder, could have had an impact on the offensive glass.

      1. That was my thought. Bradley should have been in for the weak side rebound and perhaps could have had Jackson repeating the dive cut to give Hicks another option, since he didn’t seem to have his driving game going against KY. Just looked like they cleared out and relied on him hitting another turn around jumper.

        1. Maye had hit 2 three’s that got us back in the game. Kentucky had to be wary of leaving him. It was meant to space the floor and not jam the middle. I think to sit here and second guess based on hindsight is unfair to Roy. If the shot went because the lane was open, you sing his praise. Fact of the matter was, the end was not a coaching issue, it was simply a missed shot on one end and a tought made shot on the other.

          1. Not second guessing the play call other than wondering why Jackson is on the opposite block rather than a big with only a second or two on the clock. Good box out by KY, but Jackson is not an offensive rebounder like Bradley.

  2. I’ve also heard plenty of buzz about how free throws cost UNC the game. Granted, Jackson would have liked to have a few of his misses back (particularly the last one), but the Heels knocked down 75% (21-28) of their FTs. That includes a combined 8-of-9 for Bradley/Meeks. Replace a couple expected Jackson makes with Bradley/Meeks misses, and you’re about where you’d expect to be. Certainly making 100% of your free throws isn’t a reasonable expectation. Kentucky, on the other hand, made just 13-21 FTs (62%).

  3. The BLOB defense is something I’ve been screening about for years. I could be wrong but I believe Roy started using this with Henson and it made perfect sense. It even made sense with Brice. But it makes 0 sense without length on the ball and I can’t figure out why more teams don’t exploit it. Also can’t figure out why we can’t have multiple ways to guard it based on personnel.

    1. Correct– started it with Henson in 2010-11. We used to switch all exchanges to prevent open paint cutters, but that wasn’t as exploitable (in my opinion).

  4. “…knocked down the game-winning 3 over a recovering Hicks…”

    Personnel is policy. If Roy insists on putting a slow-leaping, rim-first kid in perimeter defending roles, some things follow. Like a natty-losing triple at the buzzer, or a late dagger three v a Kentucky in December.

    So long as Roy never mentions eFG% I know this is never going to change. The Heels will always view — both offensively and defensively — a mildly contested 12-footer as a better shot than a recovering defender 22-footer.

    All I know to do is hope we are always up four.

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