Trial and Error
The stakes don’t get any higher in “chicken” than they do against the Miami Heat, who have the NBA’s ultimate Swiss Army knife in LeBron James. When he plays power forward, as he does for major chunks of 48 minutes, the matchup becomes exponentially problematic for most teams.
But on a Friday night where the Pistons played starting power forward Jason Maxiell just 19 minutes, Frank played Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond together for more than 11 minutes. That’s nearly twice as many as they’ve averaged together this season.
And for almost all of those minutes, Miami was playing small. In the first quarter, the Heat played James up front with Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem. In the second quarter, it was Chris Bosh with Battier and Mike Miller. In the third, it was Joel Anthony with Battier and James. And in the fourth, while Drummond and Monroe were together, the Heat really downsized, going with three guards – Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and Norris Cole – together with Anthony and Battier.
Monroe punished Miami in the first half, scoring 13 first-quarter points and exploiting the matchup when Erik Spoelstra dared to put the 6-foot-8 Battier on Monroe. When Frank paired Monroe and Drummond in the second half, Miami countered by putting Battier on Drummond.
“Greg is our back-to-the-basket scorer, Andre is a screen-and-roller. Andre didn’t’ get those lobs last night,” Frank said after Saturday’s practice on the University of Miami’s campus. “It’s a different game. You’ve got to play against the best. That will be part of the adjustment and maturity with it. That ain’t gonna come overnight. It takes a long time. He’s 19.”
Yet Drummond is only half of the equation. For all the public hand-wringing over Frank’s deliberation in expediting the Drummond-Monroe pairing, it has less to do with limiting Drummond’s exposure – the widely perceived reason – than with putting Monroe at a disadvantage against players he’s unaccustomed to guarding and in a position he’s unaccustomed to playing – not just for the mismatches Monroe might encounter, but for the vastly different set of defensive responsibilities a power forward faces defensively when he’s guarding a stretch four.
“When you’re programmed to be a five your whole life and in your NBA experience that’s all you know and you’re playing against a spread four, it’s not guarding the four,” Frank said. “It’s being in protection and rotations.”
When a stretch four is in the game, Frank said, the proper read for the power forward when the center leaves his man isn’t to go to the other big – the instinct a center would have – but to the low man, instead.
“It will be repetition and time,” he said. “Then you figure out the effectiveness of how it works.” It worked with mixed results in Miami, but Frank seemed to indicate that it would be given more chances against various combinations to give him and his staff something to base decisions on for the future. “We will see all these things before the year is over because we need to make educated decisions based on what we’ve seen, not on speculation.”
Drummond, for his part, is growing increasing comfortable in a greater array of circumstances and for longer stretches of minutes.
“It just comes with time,” he said. “(Frank) knew I wasn’t ready to play 20-plus minutes, so he gradually threw me into the game and knew how to get the best out of me and get 100 percent out of me. I trust Lawrence. He knows what he’s doing to get the best out of me.”
Drummond is aware that more prolonged stretches of being paired with Monroe requires a greater adjustment on his teammate’s part. When he saw Monroe guarding Battier on Friday, he says he told him, “If he beats you, I’m going to be right there.”
“So it happened one time, I pushed him out there to go guard the three and (Battier) blew by him and I came up and got the block. The more we play together, the better he gets at it. He doesn’t have to worry about that (when he’s playing with Jason) Maxiell because Maxiell is usually the one doing it, but he’s going to have to become an all-around player sooner or later, so better he does it now.”
The adjustment for Drummond will be greater on the offensive end – learning how to punish teams that try to guard him with much smaller players, leaving the more imposing post defender to try to mitigate Monroe’s post scoring. Frank recalled the loss to Charlotte earlier this month when the Bobcats would switch Kemba Walker on to Drummond.
“That’s going to be part of the deal,” Frank said. “You can’t allow that to happen.”
It will be trial and error going forward, perhaps, but this much appears likely: There will be more frequent trials, it appears.