The first half of the Duke/ Bradley game on Wednesday night was possibly the most boring half of basketball I have ever seen played in the (almost) always exciting environs of Cameron Indoor Stadium. The unseasonable cold, combined with a 9 pm weekday start during the week before exams certainly contributed to the malaise, but most of it was due to the ragged play of the teams on the court. Bradley started the season 4-0, which included a win over Southern Cal, but came into Cameron on a four game losing streak after losing their top two scorers. Needless to say, we were not catching them at their best. On the other side, Duke was trying to figure out how to run an offense without Kyrie Irving, arguably the best PG in the country and the Devils’ leading scorer at 17.4 ppg. It should come as a surprise to no one that it wasn’t the smoothest of transitions.
Nolan Smith is a scorer, pure and simple. That’s what he does best. He’s always been a little careless with the ball and a little questionable in his decision making when it comes to distributing it, however. This year, the addition of a pure PG in Irving has allowed him to continue his development as a scorer , but also to boost his rebounding and assist numbers to career high averages. Turnovers are still a real problem, though. Coming in to last nights game, Nolan was averaging 3.3 turnovers per game, good for the fourth worst average amongst ACC players. ( For the record, Larry Drew II is only averaging 1.9). That’s not an especially encouraging number for a guy who’s about to pick up a lot of minutes at the point during Kyrie’s absence. Last night it was evident throughout the game that Nolan was reorienting his game to valuing and distributing the ball instead of scoring. In the first half, this led to a tepid and stagnant offense, as Nolan and the rest of the team felt their way into things by carefully and ineffectually passing the ball around the perimeter and settling for a lot of contested jumpers. Thankfully, Andre Dawkins was able to hit a few of those, as he and Miles Plumlee’s intermittent dunks ( which occurred during the several moments when Duke actually attacked the Bradley zone…hint, hint) essentially accounted for all of the offensive production in the first half. Basically, the Devils were trying to figure out how to attack offensively without the best attacking player in the country, and the result was an insomnia-curing offenisve effort. Not really surprsing in hindsight, but stultefying nonetheless. On the defensive end, Duke played consistently well, holding the short-handed Braves to 18 first-half points.
The second half was ( blessedly) a different story. The locker room adjustments were evident right off the cuff as Duke began to attack Bradley by working the ball through the high post to Miles ( who played his best game of the year with 14 and 4) and Mason, and by having Nolan aggressively drive and kick. Both tactics resulted in numerous wide open looks for Andre and Kyle, and they didn’t disappoint. Andre ended with a career high 28 points on 8-14 shooting from behind the arc and Kyle had his best game since the Oregon game, finishing with 17 points 6 rebs and 4 assists on 4-9 3-point shooting. The impact of Nolan’s switch to primary ball handler on his scoring was evident throughout the game. His jump shots were way off the mark and he was consistently unable to finish at the rim, as he ended the game on 0-8 shooting from the floor. This was frustrating to see coming from a guy who had just put up 24 against Butler, but he ended the game with a career high 10 assists and only 2 turnovers ( his low for the year), so it seems obvious that he was prioritizing running the offense over being the offense.
When you think about it, it’s really kind of amazing that we could lose our top scorer/ PG, have our second leading scorer throw up an o-fer and still beat a team by nearly 40 points ( even if it is a depleted Bradley squad ). Duke nation will hope like hell that the Kyrie injury isn’t a season ender , as has been intimated ( Kyrie tweeted the following earlier today: Situation not looking good and I’m not feeling good…smh worst thing ever), but if it is, we have the depth and experience to still be one of the top teams in the country. The next several games will give us a chance to recalibrate and acclimitize, with Nolan leading the way at PG, before the ACC season begins.