The debate of nature versus nurture, as it pertains to certain traits, psychology and behavior, has raged since humans were first capable of philosophical thought. Since the term itself was coined by Francis Galton, an English polymath (an occupation that apparently existed during the European Renaissance), countless studies and experiments on “nature versus nurture” have consistently reached the same conclusion: It’s usually a little bit of both.
A similar discourse exists in the sports world, wherein we question how much of a team’s success depends on strategy versus how much depends on the players’ execution. It’s taken on different names, none of which are as catchy as its scientific equivalent, with the most prevalent being the somewhat cumbersome and exclusionary, “Xs and Os or Jimmys and Joes.”
No matter what you call it, the answer is generally the same: It’s usually a little bit of both.
So when you read about Chris Paul’s utter domination in the Phoenix Suns’ 118-105 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Tuesday’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals, you’re going to see a lot of analysis of scheme, which is perfectly warranted. Our Sam Quinn and James Herbert both laid out adjustments that Mike Budenholzer and the Bucks can make to their defensive plan for Thursday’s Game 2 — keeping Brook Lopez higher in drop coverage, going small earlier and more often, sending a second defender at Paul on drives.
But there are aspects of defense that have nothing to do with scheme — effort, intensity, physicality — that the Bucks need to improve upon if they’re going to slow down Paul, and Devin Booker, in Game 2 and beyond.
“Just got to keep making it tough on them, tough as possible,” Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said of Paul and Booker after Game 1. “They are going to get a lot of shots to go. Great playmakers. Most of the time, they are going to make the right decision. The ball is going to be in their hands a lot. Just have to make it as tough as possible. Keep them in front. Make them shoot twos, but tough twos. And obviously, we know that’s what they want to get to.”
Making things “tough” on superstar guards with Paul and Booker’s skillset is easier said than done. Lopez and Bobby Portis have been criticized for being roasted by Paul in isolation situations after switches, but the shots Paul made weren’t exactly great looks. Nearly all of Paul’s jumpers were closely contested, with a big man’s hand inches from his release.
Sure, Paul was getting the matchups that he wanted, but it’s hard to imagine another defender contesting those shots more closely than Lopez did.
“He hit tough shots. That’s what he does,” Lopez said of Paul after the game. “That’s what he’s done his whole career and he did that tonight.”
This is where the “Xs and Os or Jimmy and Joes” debate picks up steam. In Game 2, does Budenholzer try everything in his power to avoid Lopez being switched onto Paul? Or does he assume that Paul won’t be able to make those closely contested midrange shots consistently over the course of seven games, and stick with the game plan?
Many of Milwaukee’s players echoed Antetokounmpo’s sentiment that, regardless of scheme, the Bucks need to be tougher with Paul. Yes, Paul’s shots were difficult, but they were in rhythm. He was getting to the spots that he wanted to, and at that point he only needed the tiniest sliver of airspace to knock down jumpers he’s practiced millions of times over the course of his career. So in this case, a lot of the work needs to be done before Paul raises up to shoot.
“I think Brook played defense pretty well, but that’s what CP does, those mid-range twos, those 15-footers, side-steps, side-step to the right, he makes those,” said Bucks guard Jrue Holiday, who spent most of Game 1 guarding Booker. “Maybe just do something else. Make him put it in his left hand. Make him drive to the basket. Give him maybe a different look and do something different next time.”
The simplicity is astoundingly refreshing. Hey, that’s not working, so “do something else.” That defensive strategy has been employed against superstars for pretty much the duration of the NBA. Give them different looks, show them different defenders, get them off their spots. In short, make them uncomfortable.
Here’s an example of what Holiday’s talking about. It’s toward the end of the game and Paul is trying to run clock, but Holiday is practically inside his jersey from the moment he crosses halfcourt. He leans over Paul, takes a couple jabs at the ball and anticipates the screen, forcing Paul to reject it and head toward Antetokounmpo, one of the best help defenders in the league. From there, Antetokounmpo and Holiday perform an elegant duet that prevents Paul or Booker from getting a clean look.
“Really just being aggressive, so at that point, I felt like I wanted to just annoy him, you know,” Holiday said when asked about defending Paul during his 16-point third quarter outburst. “Kind of get him off rhythm. Be able to either make him pass the ball or take tough shots, tough twos. Yeah, that’s something we’re going to have to make an adjustment to in Game 2.”
Ironically, the player the Bucks can learn the most from when it comes to being an “annoying” defensive pest is Paul himself. The 16-year vet has long walked the fine line between playing hard and playing dirty, consistently tormenting his assignments to the point of frustration.
Take this, for example, when Middleton tried to use his size advantage to post up Paul, who cramped Middleton’s space before picking up a clean strip at a key juncture of Game 1.
The Bucks would benefit from taking a page out of Paul’s book for Game 2, becoming an utter nuisance on the defensive end in an effort to frustrate and exhaust the 36-year-old point guard. It’s harder than it sounds, particularly to do it without fouling — the Suns went 25-for-26 from the free throw line in Game 1 — but something needs to change given the level of comfort at which Paul is playing right now.
As for the question of scheme versus execution, Budenholzer gave the expected answer in advance of Game 2: It has to be both.
“He’s a player that probably you got to change up the looks. If he gets a rhythm on something, it’s not good for us,” Budenholzer said of Paul on Wednesday. “So you got to have multiple kind of looks and adjustments and be able to execute at a high level whatever you’re doing.”