NEW YORK -- If the second Knicks play of Tuesday's game didn't scare the Wizards, it should have. Washington executed its defensive game plan to a T, only to see John Wall relax for one instant defending Shane Larkin in the corner. The ball went into the high post too easily and Larkin cut backdoor for a layup.
That happened one other time against the Wizards. Anyone on the Wizards. In the entire game.
In between, the Wizards showed the rest of the league how to grind the Triangle offense to a halt, holding the Knicks to just 83 points on 37 percent shooting with 16 assists to 18 turnovers. In the second half, when the Wizards really turned up the screws, the Knicks shot 29 percent. That defense allowed the Wizards to overcome a spotty offensive performance that included several missed layups and free throws.
"That's the kind of defense that we need to play, that we're capable of playing," Randy Wittman said. "That's what propelled us last year, and the last couple games, we've gotten back to that."
Wittman declined to describe the gameplan more specifically, but several players filled in the gaps.
The Triangle is initiated with a series of perimeter passes between three players. A guard will dribble the ball, find a wing on one side, then cut through to the corner to form the actual Triangle. As that happens, a third player drifts (or stays) well behind the three-point line in the middle of the floor, ready to receive a ball reversal should the initial action fall apart. Here's an illustration via my preseason Triangle feature with Doug Eberhardt.
From that position, it's easy for the Lakers to run their offense.
The Wizards, though, wanted to cut off the heads of the snake. Make it hard for the players in Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom's position to catch the ball in the first place, and there can be no Triangle offense. Thus Washington's wings aggressively denied the ball, grinding the sets to a half before they could even get started.
"That was definitely part of the gameplan," Garrett Temple said. "We wanted to take them out of the Triangle."
This is how they did it.
When the Knicks' point guard looked for the wing pass to initiate the offense, it wasn't there. When the Knicks actually set up the strong side triangle and looked for the release option at the top of the key, it wasn't there. And because those plays weren't there, the Knicks were totally confused.
"We talked about it on the film. That was the gameplan," Pierce said. "Don't let them just move the ball around and get to their spots. Don't let them flash to the basketball. Take away all those little cuts. I think we did a really good job with that and it kind of took away their offense for the most part."
Of course, the Wizards are hardly the first opponent to do this to a Triangle team. This is why there's a built-in counter read in the offense that asks the man in the high post to flash to the middle as one of the wings or the release man cuts backdoor. (The latter is known as "blind pig," or "center opposite" as Drew Gooden called it Tuesday). In theory, the floor is spaced well enough for those backdoor plays to become available.
But the Wizards stopped those because their ball denial strategy wasn't just limited to the wings. They also made it very difficult for that high post man to get open.
And because the Wizards made it difficult for that high post man to get open, particularly in the second half, the backdoor option wasn't there. After all, that player can't throw a backdoor pass if he doesn't have the ball.
"We were trying to deny the flash. Center opposite is what they call it, when the big flashes up to the top," Gooden said. "We tried to take that away so they couldn't get that backdoor. They got it with Shane Larkin one time and with J.R. Smith. We took that away and we adjusted."
If all else failed, the Wizards made big individual plays to compensate. Watch Otto Porter's recovery here to disrupt what seemed like an open Tim Hardaway Jr. shot.
And notice how Marcin Gortat sees the danger of an over-the-top backdoor pass and slides over to cut it off before Larkin can throw it.
It should be noted that the Knicks' own inexperience running the Triangle helped the Wizards. A team with more reps in the system and better pieces on the roster would throw more decisive passes and beat the Wizards' scheme. Gooden, for his part, believed the Knicks played into the Wizards' hands in the second half to some degree by being too conservative with their passes out of fear of committing sloppy turnovers like they did in the first half.
Still, this was a clinic on how to stop the Triangle. More importantly for the Wizards, it was a clinic on how to grind out a victory when the offense isn't clicking. That'll pay off down the road when the full roster is actually healthy.