On Monday night, Brandon Jennings compiled a ridiculous stat line against the Philadelphia 76ers: 33 points, 8 assists, 4 steals, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks. While the points, blocks, and rebounds were well above his seasonal averages, the assists (7.9) and steals (3.1) were not. Jennings currently leads the NBA in both steals (22) and steals per game. His quick attacks and supersonic hands have terrorized opposing guards this season — most often resulting in a high-percentage scoring opportunity on the fast break.
But many of his steals are coming on daring double-teams. As Scott Skiles noted earlier this week,
“He’s being a little smarter about it. Normally when Brandon gets near the ball, because he has good hands, he is going to flick it from you.
“Even the other night (against the 76ers) he took a couple gambles, but they were good gambles. A guy had turned his back and he tried to get it.”‘
Here is a quick look at the four steals Brandon plundered Monday in Philly, plus an attempt that he didn’t get.
On his first heist, the play begins with Evan Turner curling around a handoff screen set by Lavoy Allen. He takes the pass as Monta Ellis trails behind. Ersan Ilyasova watches with an eye for help, and Brandon is nearby in case he needs to drop down to help on Ilyasova’s assignment, Thaddeus Young. But Samuel Dalembert drops into the play too, and Turner finds himself quickly surrounded by four defenders.
Sensing the failed penetration, Turner tries to kick out a pass to Jrue Holiday, the player Jennings was guarding. It would have set up an open three-point attempt. But Brandon does a good job spreading himself out to cut off the passing angles.
After the pass from Jennings, Tobias Harris spun around and converted a layup.
In a slowly developing transition play, Monta Ellis picks up Holiday, even though Jennings had guarded him the whole game to that point. Jennings was already headed in that direction. He preys upon Holiday from behind, ignoring Turner entirely (and rightly so, because he’s behind the play on the far side).
The resulting fast break netted Monta Ellis a three-point play opportunity that he successfully converted.
As the old man playing ball at the YMCA, I’m completely familiar with this move.
Jrue Holiday penetrates and gets past Jennings. But, to no one’s surprise, Ekpe Udoh is there to help. Jennings is essentially beaten on the play, but he doesn’t give up on it entirely — he turns and looks to see what he might be able to poke away from behind. When Holiday pulls back the ball to protect it from Udoh, Jennings pillages Holiday once again.
Mike Dunleavy collects the loose ball and returns it to Jennings for the easy basket.
This steal is the first one that Jennings gets without taking any real gambles, but he still gets a ton of help from his teammates.
If you pause the video at the moment of deflection, you’ll see the Bucks in nearly perfect defensive alignment. As Holiday makes the spin, Jennings has help to his left from Ilyasova, to his right from Harris, and from the back with Dalembert behind. Ellis waits with Sam — ready to step in on a switch or fly back out to his man.
As it turns out, Ellis collects the loose ball after Jennings deflects it — and he pitches it back ahead to Jennings for another “easy” play in transition. I say “easy” because at his size, Brandon doesn’t finish as well as some larger players. Fortunately, he has the speed to stay in front if he gets a step ahead of the defense.
The penalty for gambling
When Jennings brings the surprise double team, sometimes it results in the pickoff, but at other times a shooter is left completely open. In this case, it’s Jrue Holiday. When Nick Young tries to make a move with his back to Monta Ellis, Jennings darts over in Young’s blind spot. (It should be noted that Young is a historically unwilling passer. He’d much rather shoot the ball than do anything else.)
While Jennings comes within a whisker of another theft, this time the 76ers get the ball out in time. Young spots Holiday on the opposite side and rotates the ball over. Holiday completes the play by making the three-point shot.
The hidden factor — pace
So far this season, the Bucks have played faster than any other team in the league: 95.9 possessions per 48 minutes. By gambling for steals, Jennings is changing the tempo of the game to one that suits the Bucks well. It becomes a scrambling up-and-down track meet instead of a bumping, pushing wrestling match. With players like Jennings, Ellis — and on the defensive end, Udoh and Sanders — this style of game plays exactly to Milwaukee’s wheelhouse.
There’s a danger that the Bucks become predictable in their gambles. Other teams may decipher the Bucks style and guard against dribbling with backs turned, especially on Jennings’ side of the floor. There’s a time factor, too. If Jennings gets caught in open space trying to cover the ground it takes to get to the double team or the time it takes to get back, then opponents may find themselves with open shooters.
But for now, the ploy is working. The Bucks are forcing the 7th-highest rate of turnovers, and they rank 3rd among the 30 NBA teams in steals per game. It adds up to possessions stolen from opponents, transition opportunities, and easy points. It plays to the style and strengths of the team.
And the best part of all: it’s helping the Bucks win games.