Dwight Howard has the ball, he is 8 feet from the basket and you are supposed to stop him. What do you do?
Running for cover is not an option. Neither is fouling the crap out of him, even if this happens to be a common NBA strategy.
Here is how the Milwaukee Bucks tackled the problem Tuesday night: By my count, 11 times they double-teamed Howard when he began his move, 10 times they played him straight up, three times they fronted (foolishly, it turned out) and once they brought the double right away. Did it work? For the game, Howard finished with 22 points on 7-of-10 shooting (8-of-13 on free throws) with six turnovers in a Magic victory. Which is to say yes and no.
As a matchup, Howard is both an easy and extraordinarily difficult one. Easy in that his repertoire is so limited. He can shoot a running hook to the middle or an awkward half-hook with either hand, he rarely gets by his man (unless it's to spin baseline for a dunk) and has little confidence in his jumper, for reasons that are apparent if you've ever seen him shoot one. In other words: All you must do is keep him away from the basket.
Extraordinarily difficult because, of course, this last directive is nearly impossible. On the season, Howard has 102 dunks, tops in the league, and he is the NBA's most effective finisher on pick-and-rolls -- 31-for-37 from the field this season, according to Synergy Sports -- for the simple reason that his roll almost always results in a dunk, often on a lob.
In the Milwaukee game, Bucks big men Andrew Bogut and Kurt Thomas did as good a job as could be expected. Both staked out their position, using forearms and knees to hold Howard at bay. Bogut worked to send Howard to the help defense and then contest the shot while Thomas, who is 38 but possesses the athleticism of a 50-year-old, knew he had virtually no chance of blocking Howard's shot, so instead looked to strip down on the ball, twice knocking it off Howard's knee (creating two of those six turnovers).
These are minor points, though. To the casual fan watching, probably all that was apparent was that Bogut and Thomas were desperately trying to do two things: a) not get dunked on and b) send Howard to the line.
Indeed, most people assume post defense to be a basic, rather boring duty. Big guys burrow in, spin and other big guys try to stop them. Leapers like Howard wait and block shots. Bulldozers like Thomas hold their ground. But if you have a chance sometime, take a moment and watch, especially before a move is made, and you'll see an exquisite, if brutal, dance.
Don't believe me? Just talk to a true practitioner of the craft like Malik Rose, as I did some months ago while researching a book. Perhaps no player in recent memory has done more with less when it comes to post D. Neither tall (his nickname in San Antonio was Generously Listed, in reference to his stated height of 6-foot-7) nor especially quick or springy, Rose was drafted in the second round out of Drexel in 1996 and spent eight seasons as the Spurs' designated Shaq stopper, or at least Shaq waylayer. During his 13-year career -- he's currently "semi-retired" after playing with the Knicks and Thunder last year -- Rose guarded nearly all the great big men of the last two decades: Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson (in practice), Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and, of course, Howard.
Which is to say we can learn much from Rose's answer to the question at the top of this column -- call the following A Little Man's Guide to Guarding the Very Bigs.
1. First off, make 'em make one. "If a guy is just a banger and he needs an angle to get a dunk, then I'll make him shoot that 6-to-10-footer and see how he looks taking it," Rose says. "If he looks comfortable taking it, even if he misses it, then I start to worry about it."
2. Bang the bangers. When dealing with a "bull in a china shop guy" like Shaq or Howard, Rose advises trying to hold him up, a task best accomplished by squatting as if Tim Lincecum is about to deliver a fastball. "I've got a low center of gravity, so if I try to fight Shaq or Dwight or those guys up top, forget it." Instead, Rose meets them at the waist. "That's their core, that's where their strength is. A guy can't really move anywhere without his stomach." Keeping low also allows for better lateral movement, which is important for staying with athletic bigs. "If Dwight gets a head of steam, you have a pounding coming. If he gets within 4 feet, he's lethal."
3. Encourage the pass. Especially in the case of someone like Howard, who is averaging a staggering 3.6 turnovers a game, Rose says you just need to hold position long enough for the double. "He wants to get me in the post to make an athletic move, but I'm not going to try to take a charge unless he's totally out of control." Instead, Rose takes a bump or two and knows that, once his opponent gets a foot in the paint, and definitely if he gets two, a double team is coming. "And then, more than likely, a big is not going to be able to pick up the ball and make the correct pass to the right person. More likely he's going to bobble it or roll it out there."
4. Be elusive. This may sound counterintuitive, considering how physical post play is, but Rose advises not laying a body on opponents. Rather, he employs a bent right forearm ("extend it and you get called for the foul") to create a gap, which leads to uncertainty. "Guys are always trying to feel you. With Shaq, he has a great spin, but you can feel it coming. Tim [Duncan] has a great spin. They spin when they can feel your body, so the more you can use that forearm, the better off you are."
5. Know the pet moves. With Howard, Rose says you have to always be aware of the baseline pivot. "He takes one hard dribble to the middle, then rips through to spin baseline and his athleticism makes it lights out." He rates Howard's lefty hook and jump hook as "getting better," but still far behind the go-to moves of top offensive players.
Rose says his three toughest covers were Duncan, Shaq and, a bit surprisingly, Antonio McDyess --"He was a nightmare in his prime because he had that fallaway, like the second coming of the Dream fadeaway." When it came to particular moves, he hated covering Rasheed Wallace's turnaround -- "He never played with the ball, never brought it low where I could get it; he just caught it, turned and shot it" -- while Zach Randolph was "the best in the league at getting his own miss," and Antawn Jamison was tough because he "shoots his hook at a weird angle, almost like he's tossing a grenade."
6. Hack, hack, hack (but gently). Rose's best questionably legal move was to wait for an opposing player to turn to the middle and then, as all eyes followed the ball on a hook shot or jumper, use his off arm to nudge his opponent at the hip. "Mess with a guy's center of gravity, put a little pressure just to throw his balance off, and the shot is often a little short, a little left or right." Others grab an opponent's shorts (Adonal Foyle was a master of this), or keep their hands, shall we say, quite active. "Unless they hear an outright slap of the skin, most refs won't call it," Rose says. "Guys are getting mauled down there. I've gotten away with a lot. Kenny Thomas, he'll slap away three or four times on the same possession." And indeed, as Kurt Thomas proved Tuesday night, Howard is a prime target for this tactic.
6. If all else fails, piss the guy off. Rose is a proponent of making every matchup personal, something that may be difficult with the mild-mannered Howard but not so with other bigs. Here Rose describes a typical scenario. "If the offense crosses half court, and the guy I'm guarding starts shouting their own number or "Mouse in the house!' or "Mismatch," he's got a strike against him immediately. I don't care if he beats me, I'm fouling the s--- out of him. He's not getting a layup."
At that point, Rose also knew he was guarding "an aggressor. I know he's coming hard, so I push back. Then he pushes even harder and I can use the pull-the-chair move and he goes flying. Another thing I'll do is I try to hit him right in the chest or hit him in the back, because I know he's going to hit back. Then he'll jaw at the ref a little bit and, when that doesn't work, he's going to try to carve out his space.
"If he's a star, he'll get the ball back, but if he's a role player, he may have blown his shot. And if he does get it, he's already thinking about what I did last time so I know he's not going to come barreling down, and if he's not a skilled shot-maker, then I got him. If he's a skilled shot-maker, then I can push him some more. Either way, he's worried about me and getting hit, so he's changing his game." Rose pauses. "And then I've already won."
So, yes, part of post D is elemental: push, smack, hold your ground. But plenty of it is not. You need to know your opponent, understand leverage and, more often than not, guess right. And if you guess wrong with a guy like Howard? "If he catches within 15 feet and gets to the launching pad before you do, it's almost like you needed to pre-rotate," Rose says. "Because at that point, the only choice you have left" -- and here Rose chuckles -- "is to go old school and just foul him as hard as you can."