As a line in the boxscore, Ersan Ilyasova had a brilliant return from injury Sunday. He made 7 of his 16 field goal attempts and he grabbed more rebounds (10) than any of the Atlanta Hawks did. In his 28+ minutes on the court, the Bucks outscored the Hawks by a point in their 104-99 loss. If Brandon Jennings and J.J. Redick had somehow found a way to make more than eight of the 26 shots they hoisted, then perhaps the Bucks would have pulled out a win.
But the concern for Ilyasova and the Bucks was his performance on the other end of the court — the one that only shows up in the boxscore in the other team’s scoring lines. For most of the game, Ilyasova was matched up with Josh Smith. It’s a tough matchup for Ersan. Smith can score inside and out. He’s strong. He’s fast. When the Bucks play against power forwards like that, they often “hide” Ilyasova on defense by having him guard the center, but pitting him versus Al Horford would have only made matters worse. It’s a tactic that only works against the lesser-scoring centers of the NBA.
Josh Smith finished with 23 points. He made 1-of-8 shots beyond eight feet, but bullied the Bucks by making 8-of-9 shots inside that distance. Much of the pain came at Ilyasova’s expense.
More than a few opponents have tried the strategy lately against the Bucks. Teams with back-to-the-basket scoring threats have gone at Ilyasova; in addition to the Hawks, the Jazz, Wizards, and Pacers have attempted to run their offense through the low-post game of Ersan’s defensive assignment.
Before he faced off against Nene of the Wizards, I asked Ilyasova what he could do when tasked with guarding a bigger player down low. He said that he wanted to “deny them the spot before they get to it” with the goal of keeping his man as far from the basket as possible. Perhaps that’s the best answer. Great low-post scorers are tough to slow — the league’s best low-post threats have thrived for decades on simple, undeniable moves and countermoves. Honestly, though, I was hoping for a more technical response.
And as was his stated intention, Ilyasova denied the entry pass well against Smith. Check the play below for example. Ersan cut off the angle before the pass was made. With the ball in the air, he held his position — he even gave Smith enough of a bump to knock him off the initial spot. But eventually, the pass made its way to Smith and that is when the problems began.
Moments later, the Hawks worked the ball inside-out from Smith to Jeff Teague for a three-point attempt. Teague missed, but the shot was there for the taking. It doesn’t help Ilyasova’s plight that his defensive help usually comes from small guards who have trouble “getting big” when running out to contest jump shots, but Brandon Jennings did a solid job of it here.
On this play, Ilyasova got a little further out front to deny the entry pass, but that may have been Smith’s choice more than Ersan’s. Smith made a physical move to secure the inside position and the rest was a big mess.
To be fair, the Hawks game was one of Ersan’s worst defensive games and also his first after returning from hip and back injuries. But in case you think these three plays are isolated examples and not the norm, consider the stats from Synergy. Ilyasova has defended 83 shots in the low post and opponents have scored on 49 of them. Those are ghastly numbers. Even taking into account free throw attempts and turnovers, Ilyasova yields 1.09 points for each possession that ends in the low post.
The Bucks must devise strategies to compensate in this area. Sanders is well-equipped as a help defender, but the better, smarter teams of the league can pass around his help to an open big man underneath, testing what is often a primary Bucks’ weakness: the rotational skills of their guards when they are supposed to drop down and “help the helper”. Jennings and Ellis need to be ready to slide low and deflect a pass, contest a shot, or give up a foul that prevents an easy dunk or layup.
Despite the ugly defensive numbers, the Bucks are still better off with Ilyasova on the floor than without. He is averaging 12.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while playing just 27 minutes per game. More importantly, the Bucks perform better when he plays.
Milwaukee yields more points with Ilyasova, but they score much more efficiently as well — something you would expect when your power forward spaces the floor and is the fifth-most accurate three-point shooter in the NBA on the season.
Coming into training camp, then-head coach Scott Skiles said of Ilyasova,
“I just don’t want people to think that if he’s all of a sudden shooting 41 that he’s having a bad year. We don’t expect him to shoot in the mid-40s again, but hopefully he can shoot a good percentage again.”
After signing a new contract, Ilyasova came out and played like the worst player in the NBA in November. His outside shot deserted him, and the rest of his game (defense, rebounding) followed suit. He shot below 35% from the field, and worse, made only 21% of his three-pointers.
Remarkably, though, Ilyasova has regained his shot and then some. Despite the early slump, he’s now made 43% of his three-pointers for the season — flirting with the mid-40s mark that Skiles mentioned as being an unrealistic expectation. When I asked Ilyasova about the biggest difference between his play in November and now, he cited the coaching change from Skiles to Jim Boylan. “I don’t have to worry about going to the bench after missing one or two shots.”
On shooting three-pointers (and inspired by this excellent post at Truth About It), I asked Ilyasova what he liked to look at when the ball leaves his hand. Was he using the rim as a visual target? Or was he looking at the ball? Or maybe something else?
Ersan downplayed the use of a visual target. He said that he looked at the rim, but that making the shot had little to do with what he saw and had much more to do with being “comfortable” and knowing how the shot should feel. Based on his results over the last four months, those shots must feel pretty good.
Ilyasova also confirmed that he would play for Turkey in FIBA’s European basketball championship this summer. Slovenia will host Eurobasket from Sep. 4th through Sep. 21st, and Ilyasova expects the pre-event training to last about two months.
If everything goes to plan for Ilyasova, perhaps he can begin training camp for the 2013-14 season with a comfortable, well-tested jump shot. He’ll need that shot to counterbalance the liabilities he faces on the other half of the court.