At UCLA, it's live by the show, die by the show

ByHallie Grossman ESPN logo
Friday, February 10, 2017

This story appears in the Feb. 27 issue of ESPN the Magazine. Subscribe today!

SHROUDED IN DARKNESS, 13,000 Bruins fans start to hum at Pauley Pavilion as freshman guard Lonzo Ball dribbles up the floor, seconds before the end of the half. The lights above the stands have been dimmed so that only the court is illuminated on this January night. The staging leaves no doubt: You are here for a show.

Ball pulls up 7 feet behind and lets it fly, already backpedaling as the ball finds the net and the first-half clock hits zero. Just like that, UCLA leads Cal by 20. Ball turns and runs through a human passageway of teammates, ushers and blue-clad fans. He heads into the tunnel with nary a look back, fist-pump or hint of acknowledgement that he just drained a walk-off 27-foot 3.

"Did you see his shadow?" his father, LaVar, asks the next day in his kitchen in Chino Hills, about an hour east of UCLA. "He didn't do nothing but run straight to the locker room. My god, that's awesome! That's the mystique!"

The 2016-17 Bruins are gripping theater. They run the court like the floor is made of hot coals. They hit open men in the corner. They pull up 5, 6, 7 feet behind the arc, raining 3s. They are a relentless scoring automaton: second in the country in points through Feb. 7 (92.9 per game), first in assists (22 per game), first in field goal percentage (53.5 percent), third in 3-point percentage (42.4) and first in offensive efficiency, according to the advanced hoops metrics site KenPom (125.1 points scored per 100 possessions). "It's pace and space," coach Steve Alford says. "It's run and fun."

But even when the lights are low, it's impossible to miss the warning signs that UCLA's freewheeling offense is increasingly unable to cover for the team's soft underbelly: its defense. With just under six minutes to go in the game, UCLA still owns a 20-point lead over Cal ... but a lifeless interior defense surrenders 11 offensive rebounds to the Bears in the second half, and that lead dwindles to five with 23 seconds left. The Bruins beat Cal by 10, but three nights later, against Stanford, they let another lead shrink, and for the same reason. Six nights after that, they escape Utah by one point, their porous D allowing 50 points in the paint. A loss at home to Arizona on Jan. 21 is a revelation: When you live by the show, you die by it too. The Bruins give up 76.5 points per game, ranking 276th out of 347 D1 teams, and are No. 115 in KenPom defensive efficiency.

"They rely on making big plays defensively," an NBA scout says. "Steals, blocks, anticipation plays, more than just keeping the ball in front of them and guarding their man."

Alford says he doesn't want to overhaul his defense; he just wants to nudge the efficiency ranking inside the top 100. If the Bruins' defense can inch forward, Bryce Alford, Steve's son and the team's senior guard, thinks they can add a 12th banner to Pauley's rafters. But it takes a certain kind of audacity to ignore history. The past 15 NCAA champions have ranked, on average, 15th in defensive efficiency entering the tournament; the past 60 Final Four teams, 21st. If the Bruins do this, if this version of Showtime takes them all the way, they'll do more than just shirk precedent.

They'll shred it.

WHEN UCLA'S OFFENSEis humming, a blur of dishes and 3-point rainbows, the Bruins have flashes of a specific kind of genius. They look like the Golden State Warriors.

Ball, their 6-foot-6 five-star jewel, is the catalyst. He hasn't pulled up at half court, pointed and drained a 3 like his younger brother LaMelo did in his Chino Hills High game in December, but he is unbound by conventional shooting wisdom. Why shoot with my toe edging the line, he seems to say, when I can stand back here, defender-free, and fire away? His creativity in finding his teammates-darting under the basket to find stretch 4 TJ Leaf or firing long-range missiles to snipers Bryce Alford, Aaron Holiday and Isaac Hamilton in the corner-draws audible gasps. "All the people coming here, they want to see a show," says Ball, who was leading the team with an average of 7.8 assists through 24 games. "So that's what I try to put on every time someone comes out."

Therein lies the truth of sport in Southern California: UCLA is fun and breathless and dazzling because it has to be. "It's Hollywood," says Steve Alford, now in his fourth year coaching the Bruins. "The exciting teams here-the Magic [Johnson] years-there was an entertainment piece to it, not just winning."

Tracy Murray played in Westwood in the early 1990s and has spent the better part of the past decade in the radio booth as a Bruins analyst. "No one wants to come into an arena and see people walk up the floor, pass the ball 25 times and shoot with two seconds left on the shot clock," he says. "That puts people to sleep. That Big East style of play never works, not out here."

From 2006 to 2008, then-UCLA coach Ben Howland guided the Bruins to three straight Final Four berths, and still Murray heard whispers of discontent about the team's pace. He'd watch from his courtside perch as a Bruin came up with a steal, only to hear Howland implore his guys to "Hold on, hold on!" even on 3-on-2 and 2-on-1 fast breaks.

"You've just got to go," Murray says.

That's what these Bruins are hardwired to do, lending an air of spectacle to Pauley that has drawn an A-list crowd. "Come on, Leaf," Snoop Dogg yells in the direction of the freshman forward during the Cal game. "Let's go, Leaf." The rapper, sunglasses on, sits next to his son (and former UCLA football player) Cordell Broadus, who sits alongside Warren G, in a black Regulators sweatshirt. In the split second before he hands off the ball, Leaf does a double take. "Snoop? ... You know me?"

"Last year I don't remember seeing a whole lot of celebrities," Bryce Alford says. This season Jessica Alba graced Westwood. Vince Vaughn spent time in the locker room. Snoop brings his friends.

"We're verified," Leaf says.

But if these Bruins occasionally look like Golden State, they more often operate like Mike D'Antoni's 7-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns. That team was revolutionary, laying the foundation for today's top offenses. But defense wasn't its priority, and D'Antoni's crew never made it to the NBA Finals. As the losses have crept up on the Bruins, they've uttered the right locker room-isms, copping to being "lazy at times" defensively, a vice they're intent on fixing before the tourney. But that fix is still forthcoming.

INSIDE USC'S GALEN CENTER, Lonzo Ball is the lone Bruin wearing gold during warm-ups, the spotlight following him even away from home. He dribbles toward half court, his foot nudging the floor's block "SC," and hurls the ball toward the basket. He misses. A trainer sends another ball his way, and this time he hits his mark. He makes two more from the same spot and starts rocking slightly to Big Sean blaring over the PA system.

Four days earlier, Arizona had come into Pauley and thoroughly beat UCLA 96-85. But in the early stages against USC, the offense seems to be returning to form. With his team ahead 18-10 midway through the first half, Ball streaks in from outside the paint while Holiday attempts a 3, then slams in Holiday's miss. Ball pauses, plants his feet in the paint, then stares into the camera, mugging. But his teammates don't join him. "Usually, we'd be going crazy," Bryce Alford says later. "We weren't really chest-bumping each other. We didn't have fun at all."

On UCLA's next possession, Ball goes to the rim and gets rejected. A slew of Bruins turnovers ensues, and the defense leaves USC wide open behind the arc, surrendering nine 3-pointers before intermission to trail by 12. UCLA cuts that down to four with eight minutes left, but then, after Alford misses a shot from the wing, USC's De'Anthony Melton finds Jordan McLaughlin wide open in the corner; there's not a Bruin within 6 feet. McLaughlin hits the shot, the Trojans' 13th 3-pointer of the night.

In the aftermath of UCLA's 84-76 defeat, Bryce Alford knows the team's defense must get better-you can't win in March when you let opponents run roughshod on you inside and don't contest perimeter shots. "We're not going to be the best defensive team," he says. "That's not what our personnel is. And we're not going to hold people to 60 points. That's just not who we are. But if we can trim what we give up now, if we give up 70, I just don't think people can beat us."

Shaving those six points isn't out of reach. An extra Leaf rebound here, a few more Thomas Welsh boards there. Steve Alford doesn't want the Bruins to try to be who they are not-suffocating defenders-he just wants those extra few rebounds to elevate who they already are. "If 16 [offensive rebounds allowed] becomes eight, that's eight more opportunities we're flying in transition off misses," he says. "Which is our strength."

Still, Bryce Alford insists after the USC loss that, more than anything, he and his teammates have to learn to have fun again. There's a weeklong break before the Bruins head north to face Washington State, so G.G. Goloman talks to teammates about going to the beach, even down to San Diego for a day. They understand that, come March, it's not just their opponents they'll have to beat; they'll have to defeat their own defense. They'll have to beat a history that says their brand of defense is not enough. But fun is how they win. Fun is all they know.

The show, no matter what, must go on.

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