How to beat Detroit's defense

Updated: March 19, 2004, 10:21 AM ET
By Dr. Jack Ramsay | Special to ESPN.com

Opponents of the Detroit Pistons face the most aggressive, intimidating defense in the NBA. The Pistons lead the league in fewest points allowed (85.1) and are third in field-goal percentage defense (.415). But that doesn't begin to tell the full story.

Since Rasheed Wallace joined the team, Detroit has allowed an average of 76.4 points and, in the last five games, yielded an average of 66.6! 'Sheed is a versatile defender who takes on any front-line matchup. He's long (6-foot-11), has a wide wingspan, is quick-footed, doesn't bite on pump fakes and is a good, off-the-ball shot-blocker. Since 'Sheed has been a Piston, he and Ben Wallace have combined for over five blocks a game -- the best dual rejecters in the NBA.

"Before we got Rasheed, I wasn't aware of what a good defender he is," head coach Larry Brown said. "He's very vocal ... calls out screens and helps to direct the defense from the baseline."

The Pistons were a good defensive team before they traded for 'Sheed; now they are the best in the league. They are playing the most effective team defense that I've seen in the NBA since Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls were causing havoc with opponents during their championship run in the 1990s. But although those Bulls were very good defensively, it was mostly because of Jordan and Scottie Pippen. They didn't come at their opponents with all five players the way this Detroit team does.

Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton (and backups Mike James and Lindsey Hunter) go into the backcourt and put hard pressure on ball-handling guards. Rasheed and Tayshaun Prince over-play their front-court forward matchups and frequently trap the ball as it crosses half court. Big Ben Wallace (3.13 blocks per game) is behind them to pick up penetrators and cutters in the paint.

The Pistons routinely trap side-court, screen-and-roll plays, forcing ball handlers to pass over or around suffocating pressure. When the ball is passed out of double teams, weak-side Pistons rotate quickly to challenge open shooters, then pressure them to drive to waiting help defenders. The two Wallaces and their backups -- Mehmet Okur, Corliss Williamson and Elden Campbell -- front low-post players, and if that player catches over-the-top passes, weak-side helpers smother shot attempts in the basket area.

If penetrators get past initial defenders, a second is in his path to the hoop, and a shot-blocker is waiting at the basket. The result is that opponents are often forced to take low-percentage attempts against an expiring shot clock.

The Diagnosis

This isn't a gimmick defense that Larry Brown has put together. It functions from the sound man-to-man principles of ball pressure, over-playing near receivers, weak-side help and basket intimidation. It is difficult to score against that kind of defense and the Pistons take great pride in their ability to shut down their opponents.

In a recent game, Philadelphia had 69 points with about 2½ minutes left to play. With mostly reserve players on the floor, the Pistons dug down and held the Sixers without a point to keep their record of consecutive games allowing less than 70 points intact. Piston fans stood and cheered their effort as the game clock wound down.

The Pistons played only once in the last week until Thursday's matchup with New Jersey. That allowed coach Brown, a great believer in the value of practice, additional time to hone the edges of an already together defense and polish the timing of his team's offense.

The Cure

What is the best way to attack Detroit's defense? There are no obvious flaws to exploit, but there are some general principles to observe that will minimize its effectiveness.

Kenyon Martin
It's a good idea to be a step ahead of the Pistons' defense.
Opposing teams should consider these forms of attack:

1. Look to reverse the ball before bringing it into the front court and relieve pressure through the high post in the middle of the floor.
2. Anticipate where double-teams occur and pass the ball before the traps take place.
3. Avoid screen-and-roll plays at the side-court. If screen and rolls are an essential part of team offense, set them up at the top of the circle, and involve Ben Wallace in them. It takes him away from the hoop and often matches him with point guards who can drive to create open shots.
4. Penetrate against tight ball pressure. This tactic draws fouls on Pistons defenders and affords the potential to reach an early penalty situation.
5. If low-post scoring is a significant part of the team offense, start the action on that player's side of the court but reverse the ball so that the low-post player is coming from strong-side to weak-side to receive the ball. That tactic opens quick passing entries to the post for shots in the basket area before double teams occur.
6. Penetrators must anticipate the quick step-ups of help defenders and avoid charging fouls by coming to a balanced stop-and-pass position.
7. Maintain balanced floor spacing to yield open shots against challenging rotating defenders.
8. Don't settle for a high volume of open 3-pointers. Drive to the hoop on at least one out of three opportunities from that distance to create scores in the basket area.
9. Expect a battle and bring your A-game ... playing the Pistons is not a walk in the park.

Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Legendary coach and Basketball Hall of Famer Dr. Jack Ramsay served as lead game analyst for The NBA on ESPN Radio. He also contributed to ESPN.com and ESPN The Mag.

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