Gametape Breakdown: Defending Amar'e Stoudemire

This video analysis was meant to go up yesterday morning but I got sidetracked with Marcus Camby's signing and the reaction so had to push it back.  The delay works out fine, though, because this post winds up doubling as a thorough justification for the 36 year old center's new $20 million+ deal  Let's get to it. 

One of the biggest concerns for the Portland Trail Blazers entering their first round series with the Phoenix Suns was how to deal with Amar'e Stoudemire, Phoenix's elite power forward.  Stoudemire is a max contract type player and athlete: quick, strong and endlessly aggressive, Stoudemire presents match-up problems for almost any team that he faces.

In Sunday night's Game 1 in Phoenix, Portland held Stoudemire to 18 points on 8-19 shooting, a full five points below his regular season clip of 23.1 points per game, which was good for 10th in the league.  So what happened? As Stoudemire figures to be a centerpiece of this series and the adjustments both teams will make heading into Game 2, let's break down his night in full detail.  

Here's how Stoudemire's 18 points break down by situation and half.  His shooting numbers are included.  

Amaresituations_medium

These numbers tell a pretty clear tale that likely coincides nicely with your memory of the game.  In the first half, Stoudemire was a little jumper happy, not all that accurate and really not all that involved in the offense.  In the second half, the Suns attempted to compensate for that by using Stoudemire much more heavily in isolation but he mostly failed to deliver.  

During both halves he used his activity on the offensive glass and a nasty facial over Nicolas Batum to get 8 points via dunks at the rim.  Throughout, he was not able to get to the foul line with any consistency, a major factor as he averages more than 7 free throw attempts this season. 

Now that we have a general idea of how Stoudemire's night went let's take a look at the video clips for more information.  Click through the jump to see how Marcus Camby (and his teammates) succeeded against Stoudemire, how Phoenix's late-game offense failed and what adjustments we should be looking for from both teams in Game Two and beyond. 

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

Loading Up On Pick and Rolls

Before we look at Stoudemire's struggles in isolation, let's see why Phoenix might have opted for that strategy.  Check out this clip from the first half.  Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire attempt to run a pick and roll but the Blazers "load up" by sending three defenders to the general area.  Take a look...

Play One

Nash makes the smart, simple read: pass the ball around the perimeter to the weakside and attempt to take advantage of the (eventual) open man in the corner.  The Blazers are telling the Suns here: We really don't want you to run the pick and roll cleanly so we will risk playing 3 on 2 with your shooters.  Here's a screen grab of the Blazers as they load up. Nicolas Batum is on the ball, Camby shows to essentially trap Nash and Miller picks up Stoudemire in the middle. 
Picknrollwall_medium 
There are three possible reasons you would expose yourself to that risk on the weakside: 1) You really respect Stoudemire in the pick and roll 2) You really respect Nash in the pick and roll and 3) You don't totally respect at least one of Phoenix's shooters.  In this case, it was a combination of all 3.  Their plan was to let Hill (or whoever is in the corner) have the shot on the weakside until that produces enough points to force the Blazers to respect him.  On Sunday, Hill, Jason Richardson, Goran Dragic and Jared Dudley combined for 9-33 shooting.  That's not going to get it done.  Why wouldn't you load up against Nash and Stoudemire if those are the results?

Isolations

Here's where the Camby-centric really fun begins.  

Given that the Blazers were effective in reducing Stoudemire's scoring capabilities in Phoenix's pick and rolls, the Suns had to find a different way to get him the ball.  Their eventual decision was to place Stoudemire in isolation on his preferred left side of the court, where he could turn to face the basket and then drive into the key for a jump hook or dunk or attempt to sneak baseline for a quick bucket.  Their methods for getting Stoudemire in isolation were pretty simple and standard. He would either cut from the weakside to the ballside while his teammates bailed to the weakside or he would use a teammate's curl screen as a distraction to establish position. 

More often than not, when Amar'e Stoudemire touched the ball in isolation on Sunday night, he had Marcus Camby directly on his back.  In this clip, from late in the second quarter, Stoudemire uses a Grant Hill curl as a distraction to attempt to set up shop.  Let's take a look...  

Play Two

Any time a defender is in isolation against a player as skilled as Stoudemire, the goals are pretty simple.  One: Don't get totally burned.  Two: Make him work on every possession and in the long run it will pay off.  Three: Do what you can to frustrate him early and, if it works, continue doing it.  Four: Scream for help if you can't manage the first three.

On Sunday, Marcus Camby never had to scream for help, which is a win for the Blazers in and of itself.  On this play, Camby does a number of things well: He absorbs body contact without fouling, he gets up to contest the shot despite the earlier contact, and then he boxes out and secures the rebound, completing the play.  That's a shot the Suns are happy with (pretty much point blank from their best scorer) but it's a possession the Blazers like too.   Stoudemire starts glaring at the officials and you know he's thinking about the defense and the call rather than the shot itself.   

We'll get back to more traditional isolations in a second but here's a slightly different play with a similar result from the middle of the third quarter.  This time, Stoudemire is isolated at the top of the key against Camby, gives the ball up and then cuts to the basket, hoping to beat Camby to the spot laterally.  

Play Three

Camby shadows him perfectly, maintains good defensive position, contests the shot at the release point and secures the ball, flips it to Andre Miller and goes back up the floor on offense.  At some point I will just start a "Better Basketball" series of videos that is just me in front of a computer monitor squealing over plays like this while JJ Redick is in the background shivering.

Anyway, this play illustrates how unexpected Camby's length is to Stoudemire.  Frustration builds.  Nevertheless, this is a solid look for Phoenix.  Getting Stoudemire on the move is critical because of his quickness and ability to draw fouls.  

Play Four

This next play, from the middle of the third quarter, highlights that best case for Phoenix: Stoudemire on the move, towards the basket, drawing contact, pressuring the defense. 

That was Stoudemire's most successful one-on-one play against Camby all night.  It doesn't come from true isolation but rather a quick cut from the weakside to catch Camby napping just enough to free some space.  Steve Nash had broken down the Portland defense well enough to keep help defenders honest and open room in the key for Stoudemire.  Stoudemire goes to the hoop hard and quickly, getting the and-one basket and foul.  

Instead of going back to this or something like it, Phoenix switches to a series of true Stoudemire isolations in an attempt to take advantage of Portland's second unit defenders. For some reason, they never switched back.  

The true isolations really start with this play from early in the fourth quarter...

Play Five

Here we have the textbook method for freeing Stoudemire outlined above. Stoudemire comes quickly from the weakside looking to establish position after Lou Amundson sets a monster pick on Juwan Howard.  LaMarcus Aldridge smartly picks up Stoudemire without blinking and the Blazers post defenders are able to switch easily and without ill effect because Amundson is no offensive threat.  

Once Stoudemire catches the ball, Aldridge does a nice job of getting up into his body without fouling (especially on the rip through move) and then moves well to stay with him on the drive too.  Stoudemire gets another close-range look but Aldridge tips the ball in the air. Once again you see Stoudemire frustrated, yapping at the officials because he didn't anticipate the length of a Portland defender.  

To his credit, Stoudemire continues to play hard.  On this play, which comes shortly after the previous one, the Suns try to free Stoudemire on the left side in the exact same manner.  This time, aggressive Juwan Howard defense prevents the catch...

Play Six

Stoudemire shows why he is an All Star caliber player by sticking with the play, chasing down the rebound and drawing the foul.  He got a point out of this possession but he certainly had to work for it.  

Fast-forward a few minutes to the final 6 minutes of the game.  Camby is back in the game and guarding Stoudemire.  Despite the personnel change for the Blazers, Stoudemire again finds himself in isolation on his favorite spot on the left side of the court.   

Play Seven

This one is very, very similar to Play Two above.  Stoudemire looks to come across the middle of the key while Camby guards his every move.  Unlike on play two, though, the help defender pinching down is Jerryd Bayless rather than Rudy Fernandez.   Earlier Rudy had done a nice job of swiping at Stoudemire to make his dribble more difficult without fouling.  Here Bayless attempts the same thing but gets way too much arm.  Obvious foul.  

The good news is that it occurred on the ground so all of Phoenix's effort to isolate Stoudemire and his effort to bang with Camby winds up being for naught.  Not a huge deal -- drawing fouls is never a bad play for Stoudemire -- but still frustrating as there are now just 7 minutes left in the game and he still hasn't found a rhythm on offense or paraded to the free throw line to fill in the gaps.

This next play, coming less than a minute later, is where everything that's happened up to this point defensively starts to pay dividends for the Blazers. 

Play Eight

Phoenix runs the exact same play as last time with Stoudemire getting the ball in the exact same location and the exact same defender, Marcus Camby, on his back once again. 

This time the help defender is Andre Miller, who initially shows like he is going to collapse on the dribble but then retreats to cover his man.  The help actually comes from Nicolas Batum who has a good suspicion that Stoudemire is looking for his shot all the way so he flashes into the key and gets his arms up as a distraction.   Feeling the defense close in on him, Stoudemire picks up his dribble and opts for the jump hook.  He misses again.  

This one is a mirror image of Play 2 above: Camby absorbs contact, keeps up laterally, challenges the shot, boxes out, secures the defensive rebound and flips it to Andre Miller.  Picture perfect.  

At this point in the game I think things have shifted enough so that this is no longer a look Phoenix should be happy with.  Stoudemire has enjoyed so little success in isolation -- especially relative to other situations shown above -- that it's time to put this tool back in the tool box. For the Blazers, who have yet to play anything but solid defense on one of these plays, you've got to be satisfied, if not delighted, every time this same situation comes down the pike.  

Well, wouldn't you know it?  With less than three minutes to go in the game, down three points now, Phoenix stubbornly tries to go back to Stoudemire in isolation against Camby yet again.  

Play Nine

This time, Stoudemire adjusts to his previous failings coming across the key (and the presence of LaMarcus Aldridge cheating hard down into the paint off of Channing Frye) by trying to go baseline.

The correct read here was to find Frye at the top of the key but Phoenix's floor is spaced in such a way that it's not totally clear that Frye is open. Stoudemire isn't much of a passer by nature anyway.  (To put it mildly.)  

His plan to go baseline doesn't look like it's heading anywhere as Camby again stays with him laterally and avoids fouling while contesting the shot.  Stoudemire, so consumed by his never-ending battle with Camby's 19 foot long arms, never gave Andre Miller, who slides in quickly from the weakside, a second thought.  Here Miller draws the charge against Stoudemire on a bang bang play that could have been whistled either way given how quickly and unexpectedly Miller's movement was. The fantastic help defense by Miller is made possible by Camby's unrelenting defensive focus and the mental attention it draws from Stoudemire.  Great execution by two vets.

At this point, finally, even Phoenix's coaching staff decided that the Stoudemire isolation play simply wasn't going to work.  At long last, they go back to setting up Stoudemire with some creativity from Nash off of the dribble. 

Stoudemire gets great position in the post, makes a clean catch and a quick move but still doesn't have Camby beat.  Somehow -- whether Camby slapped his arm or poked the ball away -- a Stoudemire shot attempt never fully materializes.  With less than two minutes to play, Stoudemire is as frustrated as can be with the no-call.

Should we chalk this up to another veteran trick?  A blown call?  The inevitable by-product of three quarters of frustration from Stoudemire directed towards the officials?  Who knows.  Stoudemire would foul out of the game soon after, having produced just one point in his final six possessions in isolation.  

Those numbers, which arguably decided the game in Portland's favor, are the result of Marcus Camby treating defense as a process: committing mentally and physically early in the game and seeing it all the way through a series of one-on-one battles.  Camby's play, and the results, were made possible by solid help defense throughout and a smart defensive game plan that limited Phoenix's overall offensive options.

Conclusions and Adjustments

If you're Phoenix, you watch the game tape from Sunday and realize immediately that it is absolutely critical to get Stoudemire the ball on the move, against lesser defenders (more off-ball picks to force a switch from Camby!) and in space.  They need look no further than a few of Stoudemire's dunks -- generated by his aggressive offensive rebounding -- to realize that he is able to enjoy success against Camby if he generates sufficient space. Like this one...

Of course the ideal adjustment is for Phoenix to drastically increase the game's tempo, getting out in transition more regularly and more purposefully.  These two Stoudemire dunks came in secondary transition.

What Phoenix absolutely can't do, however, is hope that plays like Stoudemire's premier highlight of the night -- this huge flush in traffic over Nicolas Batum -- will carry them through to four wins in a playoff series.

The Blazers would gladly exchange that highlight film dunk for the cumulative results of the slowed down, isolation-heavy, stagnant sets laid out above.  

In that sense, Portland's defensive adjustments against Stoudemire, at least initially, shouldn't be major.  Let him shoot the jumper until he proves he can hit it, actively harass and load up on the pick and roll when he's the screen setter, account for him on the glass and in transition, and allow Camby to do what Camby does when the two are isolated against each other, sending help from different locations to confuse and annoy Stoudemire as much as possible.

Certainly the Suns and Stoudemire are capable of playing far better offensively than they showed Sunday night.  Hopefully this breakdown gave you a better sense of what caused some of their struggles.   

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

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