Anyone who has been paying attention this season knows that Duke has been, in the main, a slow starting team (or, if we are being more generous, a "second half" team). Never was that more in evidence than on Thursday night, when the still-adjusting Devils rolled out a true stinker against the always physical, guaranteed-to-make-you-play-ugly, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Team reformulation be damned, this was a butt ugly performance by any standard, even the standard that the Duke men have set so far this season. Let's take a look.
Here are the overall shooting percentages for Duke in the first half of 4 of their last 5 games with 3 point percentages in parentheses. I'm excepting the State game, ironically our best first half, because it gets in the way of my point. So there.
Davidson - 41% (33) ,Wake - 36% ( 56), Clemson 29% (33), Georgia Tech, 27%(36)
As you can see, not so awesome, and ending with what we can only hope ( for the sake of our eyeballs and the rims) will be the nadir of the lot. Now here are the second half percentages for the same games
Davidson - 50% (60), Wake - 57% ( 25), Clemson - 72% ( 83), GT - 53 % ( 60)
So, on average, our overall first half FG% in those games is 33%. In the second half it's 58%. That's amazing. The average points scored per half in those games is 30 in the first and 42 in the second. I hereby officially an unequivocally declare us a slow starting/second half offensive team. (Our defense has held these same opponents to an average of 24 points in the first half, which is great.) Coach K noted in his post-game interview with Duke Radio, that Duke plays much better offensively when they are running the offense on the end of the court next to the Duke bench. In Cameron (and maybe every team's home court for all I know) this always happens in the second half . This leaves one to speculate whether or not this pattern we see isn't due to the learning curve of Quinn Cook. Our floor general runs the offense better when he's closer to the brigadier.
But back to last night's contest. If it had been merely a shooting issue that would have been one thing, but Duke could do very little else right to help themselves in last night's first half. They gave up a bundle of offensive rebounds early to let the Jackets claim the lead; they continued to struggle with transition defense (even on occasions where they had numbers getting back); they turned the ball over 8 times; and despite actually force-feeding Mason on every conceivable possession, he chose this half to revert to Mason of old who was more often than not ineffective down low ( though, to be fair, he did have at least 3 of his misses rim tantalizingly out, on his way to that gruesome 2-12 from the floor.) Duke's shot selection wasn't bad at all and GT's defense wasn't especially great ; it's just that he Devils just could NOT get any shots to fall. If not for Tech laying bricks at the free throw line and giving away the basketball as fast as those 'Free Designer Handbag' fliers on a New York City street corner Duke truly could have been down double digits. Easy.
And then there was the second half. Perhaps nudged by a great drive before intermission, our head coach noticed that Amile Jefferson (who's shift to a starting role so many Duke fans have been clamoring for) was, for the second game in a row, playing very well. He was rewarded with the second half start and finished with 6 points, 10 boards (6 off) 2 steals, one big block, and (unofficially) 13 crowd gesticulations. Yes, he still looks awkward sometimes, but you can't help but admire his nose for the ball and his Go-Go Gadget rebounding arms. He absolutely gets after it. That , of course, cuts both ways as he picked up at least 4 fouls for the second consecutive game - but he'll learn. Rasheed Suliamon broke out of his shooting slump with 15 points on 5-7 shooting (and 3 big threes), which may have been the most important news of the night. After finishing a breakaway late in the second half, you could easily see ( if you were sitting behind the bench like me) the expression of relief on his face. Duke fans will hope he is officially of the schnide. ( Does anyone besides me wonder where that expression comes from?) Seth Curry once again proved to be the guy no one wants to be guarding with head-shaking 6 of 7 from distance. But of course the moment that had the entire twitter-sphere all... well... atwitter was Coach K's hugging/mauling of Mason Plumlee at midcourt. MP2 had finally shortly after he completed his second half awakening by heeding Bill Walton's best advice: "Throw it down Big Guy!" In the second half Duke shot better, rebounded better, and stopped turning the ball over. Amazing what that will do for your game-winning prospects.
So, what's the takeaway here ? Some things we already knew :
- this Duke team is capable of playing very good defense ( see Tech held under 60 while shooting 38% with 21 turnovers)
- Mason and Seth will continue to produce if healthy, but as long as Kelly remains out someone else ( or elses) will have to step up and have above average games for Duke to win, as Amile and Rasheed did last night and
- Duke can and should beat these bad ACC teams at home, but Duke is now playing with even higher in-game volatility. Coach K has always been a big believer in working really hard in practice to get that to translate into game time production. In the post-game interview he said that, at the moment, since Ryan and Seth are not practicing, continuity is going to be especially hard earned. That is going to make for some rough edges, especially on the offensive end. With the next two games against Miami and Maryland, we'll get to see just how much sandpaper they are going through.