By Rob Mahoney
TNT's doubleheader dominates Thursday nights in the NBA. Those two games have become appointment viewing for fans over the years, as most of the league is off to showcase a few teams on a national stage.
But it's not uncommon for schedule makers to slot in one extra game to run in the background on Thursday night, typically involving at least one lottery-bound team. Last week's B-side featured a battle of the titans, as the Kings took on the Mavericks for 12th-place supremacy in the Western Conference. A few weeks earlier, the Hawks unceremoniously blew out the Bobcats.
And this week, the Bucks, a perfectly decent but inarguably low-profile team, and the West-worst Suns had the distinction of playing opposite TNT's Heat-Lakers blockbuster. Even NBA diehards had every reason to focus on the headliner as opposed to the scheduled also-ran, and Miami's victory turned out to be riveting theater.
But the Bucks and Suns managed to provide a somewhat entertaining product, including a touch-and-go fourth quarter that featured a single-digit margin the entire way. (The game turned out to be the last of coach Alvin Gentry's tenure in Phoenix.) Neither team was all that spectacular, but it was hard-fought, competitive basketball in a game that could easily have been far less interesting. Credit goes to Phoenix for hanging around, and to Milwaukee for sneaking away with a 98-94 comeback win.
Or, more specifically: Credit goes to Bucks interim coach Jim Boylan, who has already drawn up a few notably effective set plays in his short tenure. On Thursday, Boylan's signature came with about one minute remaining and the Bucks leading by five, 91-86. Let's take a look at that play, which produced Mike Dunleavy's key three-pointer over Jared Dudley:
That's not just a clutch three-pointer from a good shooter, but a clever use of personnel. Defenders are trained to look for the opponent's top shot creators in these instances, and thus it's natural that the Suns would fixate on Monta Ellis, who cuts down the baseline, before Dunleavy or Brandon Jennings, who is initiating this play from the top of the floor. By first running Ellis around a series of screens and having him curl toward the foul line, Milwaukee makes this look like a roundabout setup for a basic isolation sequence -- a device geared to get the ball in the hands of its best individual scorer. But Boylan smartly drew up a play in which Dunleavy, after screening for Ellis, feigns to float out to the corner before making a hard cut in Ellis' wake. He uses the same screens and the same path, but has the benefit of working against a defense that likely expected Ellis to get the ball.
Here's how that same play looks once diagrammed:
Dudley is still persistent enough to get back in Dunleavy's line of sight, but he's lost a step thanks to the initial surprise of Dunleavy's cut and Milwaukee's screening. The execution by screeners John Henson and Larry Sanders could be better here, but they at least manage to get in Dudley's way long enough for Dunleavy to pull the trigger for his fourth three-pointer of the game in five attempts. This set is much different from the isolation-dependent possessions that most teams rely on at the end of close games. But the design also actually plays on that expectation of an isolation to create an open look for another player. Strip this play of its context and the players of their reputations, and this is just a pretty basic staggered screen for two curling shooters. But by having Ellis lead and Dunleavy unexpectedly follow, Boylan positions his team to benefit from the expectations created by the industry standard.