Kent Bazemore, Manu Ginobili, and the defensive closeout to end game 1

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At the end of Game 1 of the San Antonio Spurs vs. Golden State Warriors series, the Warriors Kent Bazemore found himself in an undesirable position: Leave Boris Diaw open cutting to the rim or leave Manu Ginobili open for a three-pointer. Given the situation, Bazemore played the possession almost as well as a coach could have hoped (see above), but Ginobili made the shot to win the game.

After the game, as I went to twitter to comment, Sports Illustrated‘s Chris Ballard already had tweeted my observation:

I wrote about closeouts previously, and many coaches have disagreed. However, the Bazemore closeout demonstrated two things:

First, as Ballard mentioned, Bazemore attempted to close out as opposed to running past the shooter. As I wrote in my previous post, “A defender in help position [in the paint] cannot contest the shot and prevent the drive.” Bazemore actually did a remarkable job, and Ginobili still had a good look.

Bazemore did not execute the textbook stutter-step closeout that nearly every high-school coach teaches. Instead, as he neared Ginobili, he gathered on two feet with a stride stop, much the same as a player would to shoot or jump for a two-footed lay-up. The gather slowed Bazemore’s momentum and improved his control as he closed out on Ginobili, but this gather also provided the time Ginobili required. If Bazemore had run past Ginobili, running left hand past Ginobili’s left (shooting) hand, it is possible that Ginobili would have jumped into Bazemore’s path and drawn a foul or pump faked, taken one dribble, and made a mid-range jump shot. However, if Ginobili jumped sideways and was rewarded with three free throws, it would have been a bad call – sure, NBA officials give the call frequently, but you would be hard-pressed to convince me they are good calls within the rules of the game.

If Ginobili made a mid-range jump shot, it happens – as I wrote previously, a defender in that position cannot take away everything. Therefore, the decision is what to take away. I tend to believe in the philosophy that Rick Majerus espoused: Never allow a catch-and-shoot jump shot; always force the player to dribble into a shot. Would it matter if Ginobili made a pull-up jump shot instead of a three-pointer? No, the Spurs win regardless. However, when put in an undesirable position, force the best of the bad options, and from a defensive standpoint, that is forcing the shot off the dribble, not off the catch.

The second, and more important point, is that Bazemore made a great closeout. Take away the time and score. Bazemore did what the closeout is designed to do: He stopped on balance to give himself a chance to defend a drive, and he got close enough to defend a shot. In the course of the game, this is generally what coaches want; this is the purpose of the closeout: Take away the shot and the drive. He did this without the stutter step. He sprinted the entire way and stopped with a stride stop before jumping to contest. If he had stutter-stepped or chopped his steps, would he have been anywhere near Ginobili on the shot attempt?

Of course, he did not really take away the shot; Ginobili had space to shoot comfortably. These are my issues with the closeout: (1) A stutter-stepping closeout would have been entirely ineffective, as Bazemore would have had any opportunity for even a late contest; (2) A great, perfectly executed closeout still gave the shooter enough room to shoot comfortably.

This is why I wrote that coaches have to make a decision, and the decision should be based on the scouting report. Are you defending a driver or a shooter? If you want to take away the shot on a long closeout from the paint, you have to run to the body. If you stop and chop your steps, the shooter has space. For a great shooter, that space translates to an uncontested shot. Can the player attack the closeout? Yes. That is the decision that you have to make.

If you decide to defend the drive and stop with enough space between the defender and the shooter to take away the offensive player’s first step, then you are not contesting the shot. If that is the decision, and the player makes the shot, you have to live with the decision.

Bazemore did about as well as he could have in that situation. He closed out quickly, he gathered on balance to prevent a blow-by, and he got a hand up to contest the shot late. My point is in no way to criticize Bazemore. Instead, the point is to demonstrate that even the best possible closeout is ineffective when the defender has to cover so much space, and to highlight that a well-executed closeout included no stutter-steps or chopping of his steps as in the traditionally-taught closeout.

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