Appreciating Nicolas Batum on Dirk Nowitzki: A Play by Play Breakdown

The great thing about playing for the Portland Trail Blazers, and this dates back to before I was born, is that if you're a player that does the little things, the Portland media will shower you with appreciation.  

On Saturday night, Dirk Nowitzki was getting all Dirky: 28 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists on an efficient 9-19 shooting and a perfect 10-10 from the line.  Another pristine example of why Germany's most talented basketball player has some commentators believing he is on the inner outskirts of the league MVP discussion.  

Down the stretch, Blazers forward Nicolas Batum was tasked with guarding Nowitzki.  In just his second season, Batum is developing a big time reputation for doing the little things and doing them really, really well. As in tradition around these parts, Batum received plenty of appreciation for doing the little things.  Check out this brief sampling...

Dave wrote...

The second was Nicolas Batum's defense.  The Blazers actually botched a couple of significant plays in the extra period.  They blew the rotation getting over to Jason Terry for a three and JT put Dallas ahead with the shot.  Then the next play after forcing a Nowitzki miss they let Kidd in for an offensive rebound putback.  It looked like the small mistake ghost was going to haunt them yet.  But in the end the Mavericks needed Dirk Points to finish the game and they got only 2 (and those early) because Nicolas Batum stood in front of him and forced him to shoot over the top fading away again and again and again.  Those aren't unusual attempts for Nowitzki, but since they hadn't been falling past the midpoint of the fourth quarter you got the feeling that even he would have preferred some other kind of shot.  Nic said, "Mais, non!" and made it stick.  Dirk took 3 of Dallas' final 4 shots and got, in order: bubkus, nada, and squadoosh.     

...

It doesn't matter what else Batum did because he shut down Nowitzki late.  Whatever slice of the game ball that doesn't go to Miller heads to Batum.    

tweeted...

The BustaBucket.com store should sell a dvd of overtime titled "how to guard 4s by Nicolas Batum"

Mike Barrett noted...

And, of course, Nicolas Batum. I hope you appreciate how good this guy is going to be. In Houston he guarded Aaron Brooks for a spell. The next night he was guarding Dirk Nowitzki. He's long enough to grab big offensive rebounds, gets a ton of defensive deflections, and has a sweet touch from long range. Most of all, he's an incredibly smart player, and absolutely wants to be on the floor during crunch time. Get used to seeing that. Wow, did we miss him during his rehab from shoulder surgery.    

Casey Holdahl noted...

Nicolas Batum's defense on Dirk Nowitzki was nearly as important as Miller's 52.    

Jason Quick with some excellent post game quotes...

He said he was prepared for the offensive repertoire Nowitzki threw at him.

"I studied tapes and knew that he always dribbled left, left, pump fake, spin," Batum said. "Every time. So I just watched the ball -- not him at all, just the ball -- and when he shot I raised my hands, because there is no way you can block him." 

On the game's final attempt, Nowtizki threw in an added twist -- a lean-in toward Batum to try and coax a foul. But Batum was prepared and leaned back to avoid the contact. 

"I had 45 games with nothing to do," Batum said. "So I just watch film."     

In that spirit, let's watch some film of how Batum did against Nowitzki and break down each possession one by one so that we can fully appreciate Nicolas Batum the defender.  Note: Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge switched on and off of Nowitzki down the stretch so here's a tape of just those possessions where Batum and Nowitzki faced off.


Play 1

Time/Score: 90 to 88 Blazers, 4:43 to go in regulation

The Mavericks run a high screen and roll with JJ Barea and Dirk. Bayless gets caught slightly on the pick and Batum leaves Dirk to show a little bit as Bayless recovers.  Barea, realizing that it's his duty in life to give the ball to Dirk any time he's got 3-5 feet of space, picks his dribble up and passes to Dirk. Batum closes the gap quickly and effortlessly, bodying Dirk with his chest on the catch. Dirk creates some space for himself with a reverse pivot and offers a one-dribble hesitation and step-through move that takes him all the way from 17 feet to nearly the baseline.   Batum rides him out of the lane, keeps his arms extended straight up and avoids the foul.  Dirk, fully committed to the drive, makes the running layup over the top of Batum.  In real time, Dirk makes it look easy. In reality, that's a superstar move and a superstar shot from start to finish. 

What to Like and Dislike about this Play

In his book Blind Side, Michael Lewis makes a great observation about offensive linemen in the NFL that easily applies to defenders in the NBA .  To boil it down, the overall play of linemen is judged starting from the results and working backwards rather than on its merits alone.  This places too much emphasis on either great plays or horrible plays and generally ignores the vast majority of plays that fall in between.  Linemen can play 34 out of 35 plays perfectly, give up a sack on the 35th play and see their one mistake of the game replayed over and over, used as fodder to explain why their team lost.  In reality, Lewis points out, defensive players are fully capable of beating offensive players in the NFL and limiting a great defensive end or linebacker to one sack should be viewed as an overall success.  

Like a Lawrence Taylor (one of the book's examples), Dirk Nowitzki is going to get his no matter what, his skills and Dallas's offense both ensure that. Dirk is one of the few elite players to have 1,000 possessions already this season and, of those players, he trails only Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Kevin Durant in terms of offensive production.  He generates 1.06 points per possession, better than Brandon Roy, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and a host of other players.  And this is no anomaly: Dirk has been doing this for a decade.

The basic instructions for Nicolas Batum when guarding Dirk, therefore, are to make him work, to bother him, to force a tough shot and to avoid giving him free points by way of fouling him.  And, if Dirk should miss, to ensure the Mavericks don't get a second shot.  Like an offensive lineman who succumbs to the fourth in a series of Lawrence Taylor's moves, Batum plays the possession as fundamentally well as can be realistically expected. He makes Dirk work, he bodies him, he stays with him on the drive, he avoids fouling and he is one of five Blazers within spitting distance of the paint (compared to just one Maverick) should the running lay-up miss.  

While the end result doesn't go Batum's way, there's very little to dislike about this defensive possession. Perhaps Batum was taken aback by Nowitzki's speed with the ball going left and could have beaten him to the spot.  But he was wary of fouling on the drive and had some help from Andre Miller so it was acceptable.  Dirk beat Batum here.  He wouldn't let this happen again.

Play 2

Time/Score: 96 to 94 Blazers, 2:22 to go in regulation

Virtually the same high pick and roll play for the Mavericks as the one above although this time Jason Terry is the ball handler. Terry uses the screen effectively, getting into the center of the defense and drawing attention from 3 Blazer defenders, including Batum, who is moving laterally quickly to prevent further penetration.  Again, Batum has left Dirk momentarily.  Terry, knowing his role, flips it to Dirk, forcing the Blazers defense to scramble. Bayless does a nice job of charging at Dirk to prevent the uncontested jumper and Batum shows excellent recognition in recovering to Dirk to prevent an uncontested one-dribble step-in jumper.  Dirk expertly splits the defense and drives to the basket, taking LaMarcus Aldridge head on. Like the last play, Dirk flips up a difficult on-the-run lay-up.  This time he misses and Batum, who sticks with the play all the way through, grabs the defensive rebound.

What to Like and Dislike about this Play

This was a very solid team defensive effort from the Blazers and yet Dirk is still able to get a pretty good point-blank look, which tells you all you need to know about Dirk's offensive abilities.  

Here we get a great taste of Batum is all his versatile glory.  He shows enough lateral quickness to stay with a much shorter player who is appropriately nicknamed "Jet."  He shows great basketball IQ in closing out on the potential step-in jumper, which you absolutely cannot give up to a shooter of Dirk's caliber. He again contests that potential shot without fouling.  He recognizes that he is beaten off the dribble and that he has help from Aldridge so he avoids a desperation foul and immediately turns his attention to his next responsibility: rebounding.  He gets in good position, goes up with authority, secures the ball and makes the quick outlet pass, in one fluid motion.

This is a case of making Dirk work and, had he completed the layup, he would have been forced to beat 3 separate Blazers defenders on the play.  The Blazers coaching staff, knowing its roster is so depleted, is surely content with both the execution and the result of this play.

Play 3

Time/Score: Tied 99 to 99, 47 seconds to go in regulation

The Mavericks set up a right side pick and roll with Jason Terry on the ball and Dirk setting the pick.  Batum is guarding Terry and Aldridge is guarding Nowitzki.  Terry uses the screen to dribble left and Batum gets caught briefly, before fighting over the top of the pick and recovering to Terry.  Aldridge, meanwhile, doesn't see Batum at all as he shows hard on Terry, leaving Dirk wide open in the corner.  Juwan Howard is playing weakside defense and notices the miscommunication between Batum and Aldridge. He rushes out to contest the Nowitzki face-up jumper off the easy pass from Terry.  Howard is too late and Dirk buries it with ease.

What to Like and Dislike about this Play

There's very little to like about any defensive play that leaves the opposing team's star wide open for a 16 foot jumper that he can knock down in his sleep.  Assigning primary blame for the miscommunication to either Batum or Aldridge isn't really productive here.  The bottom line is that both players must talk better.  In Batum's case he must realize he is very likely the first Blazer to successfully fight over a pick all season (I'm joking.. but really...) and verbally alert Aldridge of his desire to recover to Terry.  In Aldridge's case he does a good job of preventing the pull-up 3 pointer from Terry but, in the process, totally misses the other half of what's going on in front of him (Batum leaving Dirk to recover to Terry).  This could have and likely should have been prevented by Aldridge commanding "Switch." 

On the bright side, you have to love the initiative Batum shows in fighting through the pick.  His teammates would do well to follow his lead.  Too often the Blazers auto-switch on pick and rolls, which leads to all sorts of mismatches both on the perimeter and under the basket when it comes time to rebound.  Perhaps this is a case where Aldridge simply isn't familiar with Batum's defensive capabilities.  Look how far Terry stretches this play out (well above the three point line) and then look how quickly Batum closes that gap.  No other Blazers defender can do that, period.  Batum's physical tools will take some getting used to for everyone, including Aldridge.  That's a good problem to have.

Play 4

Time/Score: Tied 103 to 103, 8 seconds to go in regulation

It's the last play of a tied game and the Mavericks put the game in Dirk's hands by isolating him up top.  Batum aggressively covers him, contesting the original pass and using both arms to keep track of Dirk's waist and hinder movement.  Dirk creates space and gets a shot that he can get on just about any defender in the league, a fall-away jumper from just inside the free throw line.  Andre Miller comes in on the backside of the play to offer a slight distraction and Batum does everything he can do: stand straight up, arms extended with a hand in Dirk's face.  The shot rims out and the Blazers dodge a bullet.

What to Like and Dislike about this Play

Two things stand out about this play and they are related.  First, Dirk didn't really look to get to the basket like he did against Batum in the first possession we looked at.  Second, rewind the tape and look only at Batum's feet: they are quick and active, bouncy and reactive.   He shuffles left to stay with Dirk's dribble, he quickly darts back and to the right to cut off any drop step and drive like the one that burned him earlier, and then he elevates (from his tiptoes!) to contest the jumper.  

Surely Dirk is happy with the look he got but so are the Blazers.  He had to work for it, it was contested well, he was bothered and the Blazers had great numbers in going for the rebound.  If Dirk does make it, they have plenty of time to run a final play. Had the result been different, the Blazers coaching staff would still have been totally happy with the defensive execution on this one.

Play 5

Time/Score: 110 to 108 Mavericks, 2:29 to go in overtime

Now we move to overtime.  The Mavericks push the ball in transition and have the Blazers in a 3 on 3.  Batum initially sprints back to prevent Terry from lobbing to Shawn Marion. Terry picks out a wide open DIrk who is trailing in transition.  Dirk catches the pass, sets his feet and shoots the face-up jumper.  Batum sees the pass, turns on a dime, closes out well and contests the shot.  The Blazers fail to pick up Jason Kidd, who flies in to put back the missed jumper.

What to Like and Dislike about this Play

Batum shows both an instinctual court awareness in transition and a commitment to making Dirk's life difficult.  The worst thing the Blazers can allow here is for Dirk to gain momentum and confidence by making a shot unmolested.  Remember, he just missed a game winner and it's overtime. Should Dirk have made this shot?  Probably.  It was the cleanest look he got in the game's final 10 minutes, other than the botched pick and roll discussed earlier. Did Batum running at him force the miss?  Probably not.  But it's the kind of play that, if done religiously, should add up in small ways. This is basically the Shane Battier playbook.

Play 6

Time/Score: 112 to 110 Mavericks, 2:07 to go in overtime

The Mavericks look to run a right-side isolation for Dirk and Batum immediately switches onto him after Terry sets a down pick on Aldridge.  No miscommunication this time. Batum wants the assignment and he gets it.  Jason Kidd feeds Dirk, who is pushed off his spot near the free throw line out to nearly the three point line.  Dirk turns and faces, dribbling back towards the middle of the court with Batum watching him closely.  Dirk backs him down with 2 dribbles to get slightly closer and goes to the fadeaway once again.  Once again, Batum is ready to contest with a hand in Dirk's face and, once again, he does not foul.  The shot misses and both Dirk and Batum watch as six Blazers and Mavericks jockey for the ball in the paint.  

Dirk begins to shuffle back to center court but Batum sees the ball tipped and makes a play that recalls that famous Derek Jeter cutoff play from the 2001 American League Championship Series.  He goes 0 to 60 from the top of the key, covering nearly twice as much ground as Shawn Marion, who is also making a play on the loose ball.  Batum beats him to the spot, saves the ball in front of his own bench and brilliantly flips it back into play over his own head to a waiting Juwan Howard, before crashing into his teammates who are standing up because it helps deal with the tension of the overtime.

In a two point game, every possession in critical.  There's an extra possession gained in the blink of an eye.

What to Like and Dislike about this Play

There's everything to like about this play. Fairly or not, I just compared it to one of the best, most memorable defensive plays in baseball history. Let's leave it there.

Play 7

Time/Score: Tied 112 to 112, 1:25 to go in overtime

Again this is as crunch time as crunch time gets and the Mavericks need a basket.  They return to the high pick and roll with Terry and Dirk.  This time Batum is guarding Terry and Aldridge is guarding Dirk, but they auto-switch as Terry drives left.  Aldridge does a nice job of preventing a pull-up jumper and Batum picks up Dirk with no problem.  The ball goes to Dirk at about 18 feet and he again turns to face.  Batum is closely guarding him once again, using his left arm to check Dirk's waist and his right hand to prevent a free look at the rim. Dirk power dribbles to the right, spins back to the left and finds that Batum is waiting for him when he gets there and that Bayless has collapsed down to double him.  Instead of throwing up a contested shot, Dirk kicks it out to the wide open Jason Kidd, who misses the three pointer.  Guess who stuck with the play, boxed out Nowitzki and grabbed the defensive rebound?  Nicolas Batum.

 What to Like and Dislike about this Play

What you like about this play is the instant growth in recognition.  Unlike minutes earlier, the Blazers play/switch the pick and roll flawlessly.  Again, Batum mirrors Dirk move for move, making him work from start to finish.  Again, he doesn't foul. Again, he remembers to see the play all the way through to completion.  

While Kidd surely could have knocked down that three pointer -- his stroke is much-improved this season -- as a rule you prefer to let him beat you from distance than to let Dirk beat you from the paint (or, even worse, the free throw line).  That Bayless showed the effort to close out on Kidd is also worth noting although perhaps he didn't need to completely leave Kidd in the first place, given how well Batum blanketed Dirk.  In any case, this is yet another play where the Blazers coaching staff can be happy with the execution regardless of the outcome.  They're pushing a very good Mavericks offense to at least its third option on the play.  That's solid.  Batum is a huge part of that.

Play 8

Time/Score: Blazers 114 to 112, 38 seconds to go in overtime

Down two needing a basket, the Mavericks isolate Nowitzki out top again and Batum battles him even before the catch, pushing him out to the three point line.  Dirk gets back into the paint with two quick dribbles and puts up his favorite turnaround jumper.  Batum gives up the space with little resistance, avoiding the foul but blanketing the potential shot attempt.  This time, Dirk decides to complete the turn, square his shoulders completely and set his feet to maximize the look.  Batum pogosticks in the air, contesting every fake without fouling.  Dirk releases the shot and then bails out to halfcourt as if he knew he missed it.  He misses long, Batum and his four teammates out-number the Mavericks 5-2 for rebounding position and Juwan Howard secures the defensive rebound.

What to Like and Dislike about this Play

All the same things mentioned in the previous plays with the added note that it takes serious mental strength to remain as disciplined as Batum is on defense play after play without getting lured into a foul by one of Dirk's tricks.  This is next-level focus from a young player who understands the moment and is rising to the occasion.

Play 9

Time/Score: Blazers 114 to 112, 3 seconds to go in overtime

The Mavericks need a score to send the game into double overtime.  They inbound the ball to Dirk who is once again isolated at the top of the key.  Batum meets him, for the last time, chest to chest, and, for the last time, fully contests Dirk's fallaway jumper.  For the last time, Dirk gets a look that he is comfortable with.  For the last time, it's a look the Blazers are comfortable with too. Both sides are forced to live and die with the roughly 50% odds that Dirk hits the shot.  This time he misses and the Blazers go home victorious.

What to Like and Dislike about this Play

Here's where we circle back to the point made at the beginning about offensive linemen.  If Dirk connects here, all that hard work by Batum over the course of the possessions that we have discussed is mostly overlooked, especially on a national level.  Dirk makes the shot, he's the hero and it's another highlight for his Hall of Fame induction tape.  Batum winds up the foil and his 7 or 8 out of 9 solid defensive plays are mowed over by Dirk's game-winner. 

In Blind Side, Lewis interviews an offensive linemen who made a point of racing down the field after touchdowns to join the celebration, hoping to get some camera time and a namecheck from the television announcers.   Otherwise, his performance that helped lead to the touchdown would go completely overlooked.  

In the NBA, defensive players have it bad but not quite that bad. There's less bodies and more isolations and instant replay, which combine to help the dedicated viewer notice the little things that happen on the court.  But it is disconcerting for me to admit that, had Dirk's shot gone in, I probably wouldn't have gone out of my way to spend the time and words I just did documenting Batum's play.  Because, miss or make, Batum's play was certainly deserving of that documenting.

Final Thoughts

NBA coaches are fond of calling defense a "process." That is, a unified series of interrelated movements that can't be turned on and off play to play and that runs together from tip to horn.  To play good defense is to try hard always, to pay attention to every detail, to work and to make others work, to fail, to learn from failure and to succeed just often enough to win the game.  That's exactly what the Blazers got from Nicolas Batum here.

It was't a perfect effort and it didn't start and end with Dirk's final three misses.  Instead, from the moment Batum started to get defensive responsibility for Dirk down the stretch, he set about with a clear goal in mind: make him work.  Diligently, play after play, shot after shot, fake after fake, Batum did just that.  That's a process and, in the end, it was a really, really entertaining process to watch.

Lastly, it's worth pointing out that when I first floated the idea of Batum defending power forwards I was thinking mostly of stretch fours, along the lines of Hakim Warrick. Warrick is perhaps best known because he has calves that are so skinny they double as dental floss.  While he is a face-up 4, Dirk Nowitzki is no Hakim Warrick; Instead he's a physical, bruising, tricky, versatile sharpshooter. He's the real deal.  There is arguably no tougher cover at the power forward position in the entire league than Dirk.  A true down-low banger like Carlos Boozer might give Batum more trouble but, all things considered, it's safe to say that Batum just went face to face with the best 4 in the league.  

I like those results. I think I'd try that again.
 
-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter
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