In beating Oregon State, 69-61, Saturday, you might think that this game would easily be filed under this heading. But it doesn't. UCLA definitely did lack focus and effort in this one and that's what kept OSU close, but it wasn't on the defensive side of the court but on the offensive side.
In fact, if this had been one of those games earlier in the season in which UCLA's defensive effort was sporadic, this probably would have resulted in a loss. It's a testament to how playing respectable defense will pull you through, even when your offense is absolutely horrendous.
So, really, it's a matter of taste, but the win over Oregon State isn't nearly as unsatisfying as some of the ones where UCLA's defense stunk up the joint. For me, at least, a game is easier to watch when UCLA's defense is holding its opponent to 33% shooting, rather than allowing them lay-ups off dribble drives or backdoor cuts like we saw so often earlier in the season.
But if you're a fan who can't stand poor offensive execution this was definitely an unsatisfying game. UCLA committed a whopping 26 turnovers, the most in any game this season, committing many of them through lazy, unforced errors. With 26 turnovers against just 14 assists in this game, UCLA as a team now has more turnovers than assists on the season. Malcolm Lee, Reeves Nelson, Tyler Honeycutt, Josh Smith, Brendan Lane and Anthony Stover all have individually more turnovers than assists. Now, of course, you expect that from your post players, but not from Lee and Honeycutt, who do a great deal of the team's ball-handling and playmaking. Honeycutt had 7 turnovers and Lee had 5 against OSU, while Nelson had 5. No one else, by the way, had more than 2 turnovers.
OSU forced many of the turnovers through its press, and then its halfcourt trapping zone, but many of the turnovers were merely Nelson, Honeycutt or Lee being lazy in passing through OSU's defense. This UCLA team has a habit of letting down when it has a lead and making lazy, unforced errors, and OSU's press exploited that. It was a case where the opposing team's talent didn't create an advantage, but merely a tactic took advantage of a UCLA weakness. UCLA Coach Ben Howland continues to complain about how the Pac-10's format of scheduling its conference games most of the time on Thursday night and then Saturday afternoon gives teams such little time to prepare for the second game. He's definitely right, but at this point, it's time to compensate and do an equal amount of time during the week preparing for Saturday's game as Thursday's game. When Howland spouts the coaching cliché that he takes one game at a time, it really is true for him. He focuses so strictly on the next opponent it's very difficult for him to be able to adapt to the Pac-10 format and have to focus on the opponent following his most immediate game. He even admitted it in his post-game interview, saying that the team spent less time preparing overall for OSU than Oregon. It definitely showed Saturday, where UCLA looked unprepared to break OSU's pressure. It also looked out-of-sync in trying to break down OSU's 1-3-1 halfcourt zone, turning over the ball and again settling for outside shots rather than getting Smith a touch down low.
Many fans would come away thinking, "Well, opponents should definitely press and trap UCLA. Watching the OSU game they clearly can't handle it." But that's not the take-away opposing coaching staffs should get from this game. Opposing coaches should surmise that it's not necessarily the fullcourt press or the trapping zone, but UCLA's lack of preparation against those two tactics. In other words, it's not the tactics but the poor preparation, especially for the second game of the weekend, so opposing coaches should gameplan to ambush UCLA with a new wrinkle, thus exploiting the team's inability to adapt without preparation. For UCLA, throughout the season, you might notice, when they've been presented with a new defensive wrinkle from an opponent, instead of pressing over it and being forced into errors, UCLA gets lazy as a reaction and is forced into errors. The Bruins react to change with a lackadaisical mindset – almost like they're too cool to really stress about it. That too-cool attitude is definitely part of Honecutt's and Nelson's game, and jumping them with something new defensively exploits it.
It's really been a completely unforeseen turn that this team, which has so many foibles in terms of intensity, actually has played more consistently with effort on defense. It's almost inexplicable. On Saturday, while the Bruins were keeping OSU in the game by its poor, lazy offense, they'd get back to the defensive side of the court and play generally with effort and focus. Who would have thunk it? Previously this season defense was the primary aspect of the game where UCLA's tendency for laziness and lack of effort would manifest. All we can attest to it is, again, that Howland has worked so hard with them on defense and prepared them so well on that side of the floor that don't get surprised much anymore – and thus we see the too-cool reaction less.
The one worry would be that, since Howland has pretty much squeezed that attitude out of them defensively through preparation, will the team always need a place to indulge it somewhere else? They did on offense Saturday. It would seem that whatever opposing team's tactic UCLA is the least prepared to face will be where we most likely we'll see it each week. So, really, for this team, preparation is key. Preparation helps to eliminate the too-cool, lazy factor.
Very simply, too, if I were an opposing coach, I would indeed zone UCLA and collapse down on Smith, as OSU did. Smith is, again, as we've been saying all season, the difference-maker. When he catches the ball in the post he's fairly unstoppable – and indefensible. OSU did a very good job of keeping him from touching the ball. In fact, at one point, Smith was yelling at his teammates to get him the ball, and even to get Brendan Lane the ball in the post when he had set up position. Yes, there are times when Smith should work harder to carve out space and get position himself, but UCLA's perimeter players just simply aren't looking enough down low for him. Honeycutt, Nelson and Lazeric Jones look like they can get into a mindset where they just don't do it. Jerime Anderson and Tyler Lamb are the best at doing it, but they, too, seemingly can get in a rhythm of not doing it.
We've repeated that tired old basketball axiom all season – that if you live by the outside shot you're going to die by the outside shot. In the last two games, both Oregon and Oregon State have gotten more points in the paint than UCLA – which is absolutely ridiculous given UCLA's clear frontcourt advantage in both games. Both Oregon and OSU tried to take away UCLA's post scoring, not just Smith but Nelson, and did it fairly effectively. Nelson scored just 9 points in each game. Smith scored 15 against OSU but you still had the feeling he was being suppressed pretty effectively, that if he had touched the ball even a decent amount he would have had 25 for the game.
It is, again, a testament to the team – and specifically UCLA's improved defense -- because, really, they should have lived up to the axiom and died by their outside shot this weekend, shooting just 31% from three in those two games. Honeycutt was 1-for-5 from the three-point arc, and Lee was 3-for-10. But (and I'm a bit dumbfounded that I'm actually writing this) the team beat Oregon and OSU because of its defense. It's a dramatic turnaround from the beginning of the season, when UCLA's offense carried it to these types of wins. And it's actually a good sign, because, as we've repeated ad nauseum, defense is what's going to carry you through and keep you in games when your offense just isn't working. We said earlier in the season that this team will go only has far as its defense can carry it, and even with the offense looking like crap Saturday, it was encouraging that the team had another good defensive effort and performance.
So, what to do about the offense? We'll say this, then: The offense is only going to go as far as Smith can carry it. It's pretty clear that, night in and night out, you can expect offensive inconsistency from Nelson and Honeycutt. Well, actually, Honeycutt's been pretty consistent in his lack of scoring in the last month, averaging just 8.8 points per game since he scored 16 against Stanford on January 22nd. The most shocking: In that time he's only 2 for 19 from three-point land, which is 10.5%. Nelson epitomizes the word inconsistent, getting, say, 24 points one game and then 4 the next. There is a bit of an alarming trend that in his last four games he's only averaging 9.5 points per game, and for fear of jinxing it, that has coincided with his considerable defensive improvement. All in all, though, we'd rather have this version of Nelson, because this one is probably scoring more points than he's allowing defensively. Lee, on the other hand, is on a 7-game roll of double-digit scoring, one in which he's averaging 17.5 points per game. He, clearly, is finding his offensive rhythm, both shooting the ball, in transition and in cutting and driving. So, perhaps you can expect Lee to continue to hold up his scoring end (which is particularly noteworthy since, as we've said many times, Lee is the guy who is assigned to defend the opposition's best perimeter scorer in every game). Where UCLA is going to have to find more scoring is from Smith, because he is the offensive force that truly can't be handled by any defender left on UCLA's Pac-10 schedule. To their credit, opposing coaches have been well ahead of the curve and have realized that, and are doing everything they can to keep the ball out of Smith's hands. They'll give up an open look by Honeycutt from three to front Smith in the low post. Smith shot 4 for 6 against Oregon State, and 2 for 2 against Oregon. Eight shots in two games just isn't enough, and it isn't like he's getting a great deal more touches than that. Against both Oregon schools Smith took advantage of just about every time he touched it with a basket. Smith also shot 7 for 8 from the free-throw line against OSU. It's simple: UCLA has to get Smith more touches in the post for its offense to be effective. And, as we've said previously, even if Smith doesn't score, the ball has to go to him for the rest of the offense to operate effectively. It, in particular, opens up Nelson to get more touches and scoring opportunities. UCLA will clearly see a great deal of zone, since zones limit Smith's post touches, as OSU's did, but Smith and the rest of his teammates simply aren't working hard enough to get him the ball.
You, of course, have to note Honeycutt's 8 blocks in this game. You could make a case that they were offset by his 7 turnovers, but the blocks are generally a good sign that Honeycutt is starting to get juiced about weakside help. So many of those blocks came from help defense (and actually too many of them came from having to recover once his man beat him off the dribble). Honeycutt also made a number of nice passes in this game, and offensively those 5 assists are making up for his scoring drought.
Also of note was the newfound energy that Brendan Lane brought to the court. In his 10 minutes he had 5 points and 6 rebounds and was active defensively. After having to take half the week off due to his grandfather's funeral, maybe it's a case where Lane having rested for a few days made all the difference. It leads you to wonder if too much physical work during the season results in a zero sum situation.
All in all, the team's development has taken a bit of a surprising turn. You never would have thought that, on February 13th, I'd be writing that UCLA's defense was carrying it, Nelson was playing good defense (and help defense, too), the team's offense was faltering, and that Lee and Smith had overtaken Honeycutt and Nelson as the team's leading scorers. With this team, it makes you a bit wary of what else could possibly change over the remaining month of season. No matter, at the very least, this year's unpredictable and fairly erratic version of the Bruins, the one where they play solid defense and even throw away the ball 26 times, is far more palatable than the version earlier this season.