The Indiana Pacers, like a few other very good defensive teams like Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls and various San Antonio Spurs teams through the years, play “soft” on pick and rolls. The team doesn’t ask its big men to over-commit past the 3-point line on an attacking guard, preferring to sag back into the lane and force either the big man setting the screen or the guard initiating the play to take a contested, long jumper. The scheme works, too, as the Pacers are far and away the best defensive team in the NBA this year.
“Soft” isn’t a word that NBA players or teams like applied to them, though. And Pacer big men Roy Hibbert and David West are two of the toughest dudes in the league. So when Washington Wizards guard John Wall let slip that the Indiana “bigs were playing soft” following Washington’s dismantling of the Pacers on Saturday, Hibbert (working without context or explanation) fired back. First Wall’s comments, from NBA.com:
“Just coming out, we talked about it before the game that their bigs were playing soft. My bigs did a great job setting screens. I came out focused tonight and I was able to knock down shots right away.”
Wall sure did. The Wizards destroyed Indiana by a 104-85 score, with Wall coming through with a fabulous night that included 37 points on 16 for 25 shooting and just two turnovers against what is, again, a knockout defense.
And again, devoid of context or explanation, Hibbert didn’t care for the “soft” designation. From the same NBA.com report by Scott Agness:
“[Washington] went out there and they played hard. John Wall was determined to get around our “soft” bigs, I guess,” he said. “You have to tip your hat off to those guys. They’re changing their season around before they go fishing.
“[Wall] can say what he wants to say. He’s entitled to it. He’s a good player. We have a chance to compete for a championship. They have a chance to compete for the No.1 pick.”
In this response, Roy is basically saying “scoreboard” as a hard defense to the “soft” comment. Even if the scoreboard in this particular instance read “104-85” in Washington’s favor.
Tossing out Washington’s lottery ambitions is probably the perfect response to being called “soft,” but upon further explanation, it turns out that Wall was in no way calling Hibbert or any of the other Indiana big men (West, Ian Mahinmi, Tyler Hansbrough and even Miles Plumlee got some run in the blowout loss) “soft” personally. He was just referring to the way Indiana decides to guard the pick and roll. And even though I listened to this game on the radio, Wall was correct in his scouting report.
And the Pacers are correct to keep up with this defense. Not only do they lead the NBA in defensive efficiency, but Hibbert (who was brilliant offensively in the loss, continuing his recent trend, with 25 points and 10 rebounds in only 30 minutes of work) probably leads my Defensive Player of the Year ballot. If only I were given one.
Luckily, because we can message each other in short bursts over the internet, things have been resolved between the two. Look at this Twitter exchange from Monday:
@hoya2apacer appreciate it big homie..never said Indy has soft bigs just said they play a soft concept in pick and roll...they got good bigs
— John Wall (@John_Wall) April 8, 2013
Good news. And possibly the highlight of Wall’s very rough season.
This is a guy who entered 2012-13 on the injured list after the Wizards shelved their star guard due to lingering knee issues, while rumors abounded about iffy training habits in the wake of a second season in 2011-12 that was seen as a disappointment. Washington struggled during his absence, winning just four times in its first 32 tries, before roaring back to the realm of the respectable with a 25-20 run entering Tuesday night, and though Washington is still ranked 30th in offense (John doesn’t have many helpers in that area), the Wizards are now ranked fourth overall defensively. That’s a rare achievement for a team with this many mitigating factors.
In a typically great feature in Monday’s Washington Post, Michael Lee credits a loud confrontation that Wall had with veteran center Emeka Okafor following an embarrassing Feb. 27 loss to the Detroit Pistons — a loss that saw Wall benched in the fourth quarter after turning the ball over seven times against the lowly Piston defense.
When Okafor attempted to explain afterward why Coach Randy Wittman had to make the decision to give A.J. Price more playing time, Wall snapped back, leading to a heated argument that was audible from the walls on the other side of the training room.
“It was just me being young and very frustrated. I wasn’t making anything, turning the ball over, and we lost a lot of games that we should’ve won and I put the toll on me,” Wall explained, as he recalled his emotions before the encounter. “A lot of frustration was coming out. As a veteran and being a leader on the team, [Okafor] stepped up and said something. At the time, it was in the heat of moment. I was upset.”
To Wall’s credit, he was snapping back because of the frustration of the losing situation, and not because Okafor was in any way wrong. Wall goes on:
“It wasn’t nothing bad. I felt like, what he said was right,” Wall said of Okafor. “It was all the right things at the right time. 'You’ve got to learn how to control your anger more.' Ever since that day forward, I became more focused. Came to practice the next day, talked to him, put it behind us and I just went out there and tried to play basketball. Didn’t hold no grudges.”
Sometimes the lashing and grumbling aren’t a sign of someone with a bad attitude, but rather a sign that this particular player cares. That he’s angry, and doesn’t know how to channel that frustration in the immediacy of the post-game scrum.
That’s the same scrum that Wall, jubilant over a significant win against a very good team, somewhat misspoke in not detailing his “soft” comment. Sometimes the heat of the moment can get in the way of articulation.
Luckily we have Twitter, and its literary greatness of the highest order, to help us smooth things out.
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