The Microscope is your recurring look at the NBA's small-scale developments—the rotational curiosities, skill showcases, coaching decisions, notable performances and changes in approach that make the league go 'round.
Chicago, Miami and the Willing Switch
When the mid-2000s Atlanta Hawks employed a lineup of quick, athletic and similarly sized players with a design to switch on most every screen, they were met with raised eyebrows at best and ridicule at worst. That level of defensive versatility was seen as a neat ploy but nothing more, as the stronger fundamental defenses of the previous decades were built on the effort epitomized in fighting through screens. Switching was, in a stigmatic sense, a concession.
Yet those Hawks—as well as other coaches and teams that preceded them—were onto something with the concept of the willing switch. It's one thing if an opponent forces switches through speed alone, but there's nothing to preclude defensive success when a team fine-tunes its strategy with those kinds of switches as a part of a complete machine.
Versatility is the key, and on Thursday night, we saw two of the league's most capable defenses utilize their most versatile defenders as interchangeable defensive parts.
Between Omer Asik, Taj Gibson, Ronny Turiaf, Udonis Haslem, Joakim Noah, Joel Anthony and Chris Bosh, Chicago and Miami ran out an entire stable of quick, flexible defensive bigs. And in LeBron James, Luol Deng, Dwyane Wade, Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson and Mario Chalmers, both teams had perimeter players capable of switching to cover multiple positions if need be.
The speed throughout the lineups of both teams is astounding, and the widespread ability for perimeter players to pester bigs and interior players to shade quicker opponents was a beautiful showcase of an apositional basketball world. There were roles and responsibilities within each team's systems, but they were fluid even over the course of a given possession.
It's no coincidence that the best in the league are on another level when it comes to utilizing personnel in unique ways; cling to orthodoxy if you must, but the league's elite teams defy it at every turn with their increasingly elastic alignments.
Nikola Pekovic: Succeeding with and without Ricky Rubio
When Nikola Pekovic began setting the NBA world ablaze in early February, I naturally assumed that Ricky Rubio had a good deal to do with it. Considering that Pekovic had looked completely unspectacular in his first NBA season, it seemed reasonable that Rubio's presence—the biggest variable change between years one and two of Pek's career—had acted as a catalyst for the Wolves' big man.
To some extent, that was certainly true. Rubio creates easy looks for any teammate willing to cut or create space, and Pekovic—lumbering though he may be—does both readily. Yet over the course of the season, Pekovic's consistency with and without Rubio has been truly impressive. According to NBA.com, Pek averages 20.2 points per 36 minutes on 57 percent shooting from the field with Rubio on the floor, but still puts up 21.0 points per 36 minutes on 58 percent shooting with Rubio on the bench. He manages to benefit from stellar playmaking without actively depending on it, giving Minnesota another valuable asset that can function independently of others.
The importance of that shouldn't be discounted, particularly during Rubio's formative years as a pro. He's not going to be on point every night, and his specific high-risk brand of playmaking will inevitably result in some ineffective outings. The more Pekovic can create for himself, the better, and thanks to his strength inside and offensive rebounding acumen, thus far he's managed to produce—when needed—on a fairly independent basis.
Luol Deng and Work Done Early
When the Miami Heat's defense gave them a chance to take hold of their game against the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night, the Heat ran an identical play action on several consecutive trips down the floor in an effort to generate quality looks.
After a flurry of movement, a Miami ball-handler repeatedly ended up above the break on the left side of the floor, positioned to feed LeBron James for a post look against Luol Deng.
Only Deng had no intention of letting James establish any kind of rhythm from the block; he pushed, he nudged, and he turned potential post-up opportunities into isolation attempts from the wing. Deng forced James into face-up possession after face-up possession, merely by contesting his post position at every step of the play sequence.
Post defense is often a foreign concept for wing players, but Deng seems to understand the underpinnings for defensive success in every space on the floor. He locks and trails well, denies the ball exquisitely and has even adapted to play bigger opponents more effectively on the block. He simply can't be praised enough; Deng has an incredibly sophisticated understanding of defensive technique on most every level, and nowhere was that more apparent than in Deng's single-handed disruption of a potentially reliable weapon for the Heat.