Just two minutes and 12 seconds after Duke and Pittsburgh tipped off as ACC opponents for the first time, Pittsburgh ran its first play designed to get Lamar Patterson a bucket. It worked: Patterson rubbed shoulders with two pin-down screens, got free at the top of the key, and coolly stuck one of his beautiful jumpers.
A minute later, Patterson collected a defensive rebound, dribbled up court, crossed Duke guard Tyler Thornton into another dimension, and earned a trip to the line.
The message seemed clear: Duke was in town, and the best offensive player in the country not named Doug McDermott -- one coming off an imperious 28-7-7-4 on 14 shots in Pitt’s win at Maryland Saturday -- was locked in. If you edged forward in your chair, you had the right idea. Patterson was going to put on a show.
Instead, the first shot was Patterson’s last field goal of the first half. He would go another 23 minutes without a bucket in open play. He would finish 4-of-14 from the field with five turnovers, and an offensive rating of 73 -- nearly 50 points lower than his season average (120.9). Pitt would lose, 80-65.
How, exactly, did this happen? How did Duke -- barely two weeks removed from a 72-59 loss at Clemson -- stop one of the nation’s most efficient offensive threats?
A rewind of Patterson’s 22 possessions, powered by Synergy scouting data, offers the answers -- and showcases a Duke defense so vastly improved from November and December as to be almost unrecognizable.
This was evident in simple, fundamental things, things Blue Devils defenses almost always do but haven’t done for much of the 2013-14. On Patterson’s third possession -- after Rasheed Sulaimon aggressively denied him an initial pass to the wing -- the Pitt forward circled, took another wing screen, and forced Duke guard Andre Dawkins into a switch. Dawkins got caught overplaying, and Patterson beat him left him with ease. For most of the season, Duke would have missed this rotation and Patterson would have had a layup. But Josh Hairston’s awareness forced Patterson to stop short at the block. He turned the ball over.
Duke’s progress was just as evident as in its specific executions of Mike Krzyzewski’s game plan. At the nine minute mark in the first, Duke forward Rodney Hood -- who drew Patterson for most of the evening, and did an excellent job -- nearly deflected the first pass. Quinn Cook denied Patterson his attempt to send the ball back to point guard James Robinson at the top of the key. So Pittsburgh does what it usually does, and sent a ball-screen for Patterson … and as soon as it did Marshall Plumlee, the screen defender, went barreling at Patterson to trap him on the sideline. Patterson turned it over again.
This play, and almost all of Patterson’s possessions (save the handful that came late in the game after the outcome was effectively settled), showcased Coach K’s downright virtuosic game plan. Duke denied everything on the perimeter and stretched itself into every passing lane. It turned an occasional weakness -- its glut of guards, its lack of size -- into a strength.
On the lion’s share of his offensive trips, this strategy turned Patterson into a mid-range player. The mid-range has always been the one place Pitt’s star -- a lights-out shooter from 3 and a 65-percent finisher around the rim -- is merely human. According to hoop-math.com, Patterson shoots just 40 percent on 2-point jump shots. It’s also where he is least comfortable, and most likely to cough it up.
The help defense kept Patterson from getting to the rim, and the overplay kept Patterson from catching the ball cleanly. Nor could he restart the Panthers’ sets when he ran into trouble. He was boxed in. Duke was everywhere.
Clearly, Coach K had a few wrinkles prepared. No surprise there. But since when has Duke been able to follow through on them so perfectly?
The Blue Devils weren’t perfect, of course. Patterson had a couple of clean looks from 3 that he just plain missed. And Pitt’s typically stout defense was as much a culprit: Duke scored 80 points in 65 possessions, and even a commanding offensive performance wouldn’t have changed that. But still, Duke’s win at Pitt Monday night was the culmination of two weeks of drastically improved defensive play. Not only are the Blue Devils doing all the little things good defenses must do as a baseline, but they’re good enough now to hit the next level -- the place where you can carry out your legendary coach’s schemes on the road against one of the best players in the country.
The improvement is staggering, and the implications are clear: If Duke guards like this the rest of the season, don’t count the Blue Devils out of the national title hunt just yet.