Thursday, May 19, 2016

Team Endless: Battle for the Belt

After ten games and a lot of growing pains, we have finally identified our single biggest weakness; we struggle, in the words of Jay Bilas, to "score the ball." There was a lot of growth this past weekend over four games on our home hardwood, especially after our flop in New Jersey two weeks before. We defended better and rebounded better, but we are not going to win many games if we are only scoring in the thirties. You can get away with that in elementary school, and even sometimes in middle school, but not by tenth grade. We simply have to put the ball in the basket more often.

In looking over our statistics and watching film of our games, one thing that has impressed me about this team is (in general) our shot selection. We take very few contested jump shots, and not many shots that I would categorize as too early in a possession. We're shooting a hair under 33% from behind the arc, which I will gladly accept any day from a high school team. But believe it or not, we are actually shooting WORSE (29%) inside the arc because we are struggling mightily to convert on a lot of layups and close-range attempts. Granted, many or even most of them have been contested, but we simply cannot get the ball to the rack and keep coming up empty time after time, especially when our overall size disadvantage significantly lessens our odds of grabbing offensive rebounds and getting second chances.

Both of our Saturday games were difficult from the jump. Our first opponents, a team out of Roanoke, played excellent in-your-shorts defense, and they had a 6'6" string bean of a center with some perimeter skills who was basically able to do what he wanted against us. With him and a couple other tall guys around, we had trouble getting to the basket at all, and were reduced to taking out-of-rythm jump shots. Our next game was against a team from Maryland's eastern shore, and they were enormous. I thought one guy who stood 6'4" and probably weighed in at a muscular 310 or so was a coach, since he was both huge and had a full Abe Lincoln beard. But no, he happened to be a 16-year-old sophomore who is apparently attracting interest from Penn State and Maryland as a defensive tackle.* And he was only one of three football linemen on their team; my starting center (again, 6'4" and ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTEEN pounds) might as well have been a racing stripe on any of their backs. Needless to say, we got drubbed on the boards, They used their size and physicality to great effect, continually knocking our skinny guards to the deck on drives, knowing that there would be few calls from an officiating crew trying to move the game along.

*He showed off his athleticism by just missing a putback dunk against us late in the first half.

In each of our Sunday games, we played good-to-great first halves, keeping the score tight and getting into the twenties, before deflating after halftime and finding ourselves unable to throw the ball in the ocean. Our last game on Sunday afternoon was particularly instructive. We went back-and-forth with a team from Spotsylvania, getting a little too loose with the ball (ten turnovers versus just three takeaways), but sticking with them throughout the first half by shooting 11-for-20 (2-of-6 from behind the arc) from the floor. All of that dried up pretty quickly once the other team switched to a 2-3 zone and we stood around the perimeter instead of cutting and attacking the seams off the bounce. When we did make forays into the lane, we were unable to convert, as we scored just two points in the first eleven minutes after intermission, and seven for the half.

There were definitely some good things to take away from the weekend. For starters, our defense is much improved, particularly when we play man-to-man; we are helping better and guarding the pick-and-roll much better, although we can still improve in both those areas, and we might have two players who understand the concept of helping the helper. The turnovers remain at a consistently lower level than a year ago, despite a smaller, less athletic group of players, and I would say that we only take two or three bad shots in a half at most; we just have to make more of the opportunities we are getting. What is really killing us, what is turning close games into twenty-point routs, is that our floor balance when someone drives is bad, so our opponents are grabbing missed layups and getting out in transition while we have three or occasionally even four players well below the free throw line when a shot goes up. Thus, they are getting more easy shots, which they are also converting at a higher clip.

Still, despite the frustration of losing, and of usually losing by a lot, I think everybody is starting to see some growth, both as an individual player and as a member of the team, and we will have another opportunity to put that to the test this weekend in Philadelphia. Go Warriors!