Only a few NBA players qualify as “unguardable.” It’s a weird category: Being unguardable isn’t the same thing as being quantitatively better than everybody else. James Harden, the best scorer in the NBA, almost certainly will bust your ass no matter how you play him, but there’s at least a theory for playing defense against him: Get up into his dribbling space, try to take away his left hand, try to contest his step-back threes without leaving your feet, and accept that he’s still going to pour 30 points on your head in all circumstances that don’t involve his arms falling off, but that he might be forced to do it inefficiently.
J.J. Redick, Philadelphia’s 34-year-old shooting guard, is not half as good as Harden. But he is pretty close to unguardable, in large part because he almost never has the ball in his hands. He slaloms around stationary teammates and off-ball screens relentlessly and at a dead sprint; he needs only the tiniest sliver of open space and time to get off his jump shot and is comfortable transitioning from catching to shooting while running full speed; and when he’s in rhythm he is a dead-eye shooter from anywhere along the arc and well past it. Over the 24 seconds of a possession, no particular scheme for keeping an assigned defender attached to him will reliably hold up; eventually his constant weaving and curling will tear open what, for him, qualifies as a clean look at a high-percentage shot. Theoretically, switching those endless off-ball screens can keep him covered—though, again, over 24 seconds of relentless sprinting around the half-court, eventually somebody is going to botch a switch, or the defense is going to get wrenched hopelessly out of shape, and either Redick will get a look or the violence he has done to the defense’s contours will create one for somebody else.
Even if some approach or matchup works for a few possessions, over the 32 minutes or so that he will stay on the court if not chased off it (more on this in a second), sooner or later what’s been working will wobble under the pressure he puts on it, and he will start pouring in threes. Then defenders begin to panic and overreact, switching before he even arrives, leaping out crazily to contest his shot before he even rises to take it. The defense falls apart completely at that point. He’s been doing this to opposing teams for years: Gradually teasing them open with endless running and the looming threat of his shooting range, and then dumping buckets of threes on their heads when they crack even slightly.
You defend against this at the whole other end of the court. Redick used to be a serviceable defender, and can still hold his own against catch-and-shoot guys who do their work off the ball. But he’s always been small and slight for a modern wing—as suits a guy whose approach to offense demands marathon-runner stamina—and, at 34 and deep into the erosion of his never-imposing athleticism, he’s pretty much hopeless when switched onto premier dribble-drive scorers or anyone big and physical enough to take him down into the post. The way to defend against J.J. Redick is to attack him, so that he either commits a bunch of fouls or turns into such a defensive sinkhole that 76ers coach Brett Brown has no choice but to pull him for a sturdier defender.
The Boston Celtics are masters of the art of patiently forcing switches until they’ve picked Redick out and paired him with a mismatch—Kyrie Irving at the top of the key, or virtually anybody on the right block—and then either putting him in quick foul trouble or scoring on him repeatedly and with ease. The Milwaukee Bucks, too, make a practice of punishing the Sixers for putting Redick in the game. That’s really the only thing that works. Assign a quick and tough defender to chase him around desperately when the Sixers have the ball, sure; try to make him catch the ball in awkward spots and do anything with it other than shoot—but also, and much more importantly, get him the hell off the floor. Limit his minutes. The alternative is having your defense yanked into unmanageable disarray by Philadelphia’s fourth scoring option. That’s simply untenable.
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The Brooklyn Nets made a mess of this last night, in Game 3 of their first-round series against the Sixers. Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons rightly is getting gassed up today for his dominating 31-point, nine-assist performance—he was terrific, and has issued just about a perfect two-game rejoinder to the mild criticisms he took after a no-show in Game 1 of the series—but over the course of the game, you could watch Brooklyn’s defense gradually being stressed past its breaking point by its offense’s failure to get Redick off the floor. For my money, the defining stat from last night’s game, the one that seems to make the most sense out of Philadelphia’s dominating win, is this: Redick played 34 minutes.
It started with the choice to make poor, hapless, terminally slow-footed Joe Harris Redick’s primary defender when the Sixers had the ball. Harris couldn’t dream of staying attached around all those curls and flares. By the midpoint of the first quarter, the pattern was established: Redick shedding Harris early in the shot clock; the Nets deforming themselves to contain Redick; and the Sixers patiently sorting through the resulting mess to find an open look.
Here’s Harris getting hopelessly swamped by a (flagrantly moving and therefore illegal) Simmons screen, and recovering just in time to get redirected again by a Greg Monroe screen:
To be fair to Harris, that action could have sloughed off any number of defenders quicker and tougher than him; the Nets seemed to lack any real plan for switching to contain Redick in last night’s game, and that’s not his fault. But here’s an example of him losing Redick around a simple Simmons screen at the free-throw line; Redick draws two help defenders to him, which allows Simmons to rumble right to the front of the rim, literally the only place on the floor where he’s a threat to score:
The pattern held pretty much all night (except for the couple of times when the Nets just completely gave up and went to zone defense, surrendering the middle of the lane to Philadelphia’s 7-foot-4 Boban Marjanovic, with predictably bad results). By the second half, poor Harris was so shook that he threw himself out of the play, if not all the way out of bounds, on more than a few occasions, trying to contest Redick’s shot before Redick had even committed to taking it.
By the fourth quarter, Brooklyn’s defensive discipline had broken down entirely; it looked like they were just improvising from possession to possession. Tobias Harris, who had his best game as a 76er, effectively walked into several of his 11 buckets just by waiting for multiple Nets to freak out and converge on Redick, and then coasting into the gimme looks that resulted from the carnage.
And look, I get it: Somebody has to be the guy who chases Redick around, and the Nets’ most-used lineups don’t offer any obvious candidate for the job. But this only points to Brooklyn’s larger failure: They never made or stuck with any concerted effort to penalize the Sixers for having Redick out there, or to chase him off the floor. They focused instead on trying to punish the Sixers for keeping Joel Embiid’s replacements, Marjanovic and Greg Monroe, back in the paint in pick-and-roll coverage. This meant lots of ball screens at the top of the key for D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert, who could either dribble into open jumpers or snake their way to the free-throw line, where they could lob reasonably open, mostly uncontested floaters at the basket.
That’s not the worst tactical approach to attacking the Sixers’ preferred defensive scheme; when it worked—including in a few instances when the Nets bothered to pick out Redick as the on-ball defender before setting the ball screen—the Nets went on the runs that got them within arm’s reach. But that’s the thing to do after you put Redick in foul trouble and send him to the bench, the fairly manageable task that makes the 76ers exponentially easier to guard.
Instead, for most of his 34 minutes, the closest the Nets came to exploiting Redick when they had the ball was to try to make him chase Joe Harris around off-ball screens. The problem is, Harris is far too slow to lose Redick around all but the very most crunching of those, and it takes him half an hour to square up and unfurl his long jump-shot when he does get loose. Harris attempted a measly seven shots on the night, and made two of them, none from three-point range. He finished a game-worst minus-27.
Meanwhile, Redick hit five threes, shot nine free-throws (he averages 3.4 FT attempts per 36 minutes over his career), scored 26 points, and created, by my informal count, 731 points for his teammates by scrambling Brooklyn’s defense. He only committed two personal fouls all night. That is not going to do it.
Brooklyn’s probably dead in this series; the Nets would have been extremely unlikely to win it even if they had a good plan for neutralizing Redick. Even without Embiid, they’d still have to have dealt to deal with Simmons, and Jimmy Butler, and Tobias Harris, all of whom are better all-around players than anybody on the Nets. But the task is that much less daunting if the 76ers’ littlest and oldest dude, its worst and most vulnerable defender, isn’t grinding your defense into sausage meat. The Nets couldn’t prevent that; the 76ers feasted.