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In Alaska, Watching Moose Commercials, and the Rockets Stomp the Warriors

In Alaska, Watching Moose Commercials, and the Rockets Stomp the Warriors


WASILLA, Alaska — The Houston Rockets were in the process of shredding the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night, and Ryan Engebretsen, a decorated high school coach from just outside Anchorage, could see the future of his own team taking shape.

“Just keep watching their spacing,” Engebretsen told his junior point guard, Daniel Headdings. “It matches up perfectly in terms of what we want to do.”

I had landed in Engebretsen’s self-described man cave — a well-appointed loft in his garage — for Game 2 of the N.B.A.’s Western Conference finals in my effort to watch each game of the series with smart basketball people.

One of the great joys of watching the playoffs in Alaska is that you don’t need to be nocturnal. The tipoff was at 5 p.m., rather than at 9 p.m. back home in New York. It was early enough for Headdings to return to the high school afterward to lift weights and play pickup basketball. Engebretsen went to get a burger.

Engebretsen, 41, recently capped his 11th season as the boys’ basketball coach at Wasilla High School with a state championship, which felt like more of the same for a small city with a proud hoops tradition. Sarah Palin, the school’s most famous graduate, helped the girls’ team to a state championship in 1982 when she was a scrappy point guard. On Wednesday, Engebretsen and Headdings wore T-shirts that commemorated their more recent title.

Engebretsen lives with his family in a quiet neighborhood on the edge of town. The loft in his garage has the feel of a lodge, with lots of upholstered wooden furniture and a pool table. For the game, he pulled three large chairs up to a wide-screen TV. Commercial breaks in Alaska seem to feature a disproportionate number of moose — and Kikkan Randall, a cross-country skier from Anchorage who recently returned with Olympic gold, is going to try to sell you a Subaru.

But for all his team’s success, Engebretsen has been mulling some changes. Wasilla won its championship last season while averaging 53.5 points a game. The Wasilla Warriors were, in a word, methodical.

“We’d control possession,” Engebretsen said. “We were extremely patient.”

Now, he wants to revamp his offense to include more spacing, 3-pointers and fast-break scoring. He also wants to give his guards greater freedom to make plays.

In short, Engebretsen wants his Warriors to look more like the Rockets, a team powered by the backcourt tandem of James Harden and Chris Paul.

“We’re going to be way more guard-oriented next year,” Engebretsen said, “and I’d be doing these kids a disservice if I played them out of position by sticking them in the high post.”

Headdings, a three-year starter who welcomed the news, joined Engebretsen at his home on Wednesday to watch the Rockets tie their N.B.A. playoff series, 1-1, with a 127-105 victory. During the game, Headdings paid particular attention to Harden, one of his favorite players and a kindred spirit of sorts. (Like Harden, Headdings is left-handed.)

Midway through the fourth quarter, Harden was dribbling the ball near the 3-point line when the Rockets’ P.J. Tucker set an on-the-ball screen, forcing a defensive switch. Harden used a jab-step dribble to create space against the Warriors’ Stephen Curry before draining a fadeaway 3-pointer to push the lead to 22.

“If you did that, I wouldn’t complain,” Engebretsen told Headdings, who assured his coach that he was working on that part of his game.

The fact that Engebretsen would now be willing to let his point guard launch a step-back 3-pointer without even initiating the offense with a pass seemed a sign of just how far he was willing to go with his experiment. Consider that only 17 percent of Wasilla’s field-goal attempts last season were 3-pointers. But Engebretsen wants to increase that number. His players are not complaining.

“I’m excited,” Headdings said. “It’ll be a lot different than my first three years.”

For as long as he can remember, Engebretsen has leaned on a tried-and-true scheme known as the ball-screen continuity offense, whose primary objective appears to be grinding defenders into mulch. The ball goes to the wing, then a screen comes from the high post, then the ball is reversed, and they do it all over again on the other side of the floor.

“It’s easy to defend once or twice,” Engebretsen said. “But by the time you start reversing the ball a few times and you’re coming off those screens, it creates havoc for defenses.”

Because high school basketball here is played without a shot clock, Wasilla has had the luxury of taking as much time as it wants to find the right shot, the perfect shot. And last season, any number of players were capable of launching that perfect shot. The team’s top six scorers averaged from 8.2 to 10.8 points a game.

Headdings was one of them. He said he understood why the offense was so painstaking. Wasilla had a couple of seniors who did some of their best work from the high post, so the team would screen and pass, screen and pass, over and over, in relentless pursuit of defensive mismatches and oodles of short jumpers.

But Wasilla’s roster will look different next season. Rather than have two forwards stationed at the high post, Engebretsen wants all five of his players spread around the perimeter. The Rockets do this all the time, both to position themselves for 3-pointers and to keep the middle of the court open for dribble penetration.

Overhauling his offense was not an easy decision, Engebretsen said. After all, he had just won a state championship doing it the old way. He recalled consulting one of his assistant coaches.

“We were looking at our group and saying, ‘How can we win as many games as possible?’ ” Engebretsen said. “And you do that by tweaking your offense based on your personnel.”

Above all, perhaps, Engebretsen wants his team to emulate how Houston looks in order to sprint up the court and score quickly whenever possible. In the second quarter of Wednesday’s game, Paul pushed the ball on a fast break and got into the lane before whipping a pass to Tucker for an open 3-pointer. Tucker had run straight to the corner.

“They get the rebound and they’re gone,” Headdings said.

Wasilla seldom ran this season. And if the team did run, nobody was running to the corner for a 3-pointer. Engebretsen wants that to change. He hopes to generate about 20 additional possessions per game. If his players commit a few more turnovers, he is willing to take that chance.

“It’s just the idea of immediately looking up the floor,” he said, “as opposed to walking the ball up the floor and thinking about what you want to execute in the half-court.”

Late in the third quarter, Engebretsen was struck by something else: a staggered screen for Paul. A staggered screen is actually two screens, back to back. It is designed to create mass confusion among the three defenders. In this instance, the Warriors’ Kevon Looney, a 6-foot-9 power forward, wound up guarding Paul. It was less than ideal.

“The Rockets got the switch they wanted,” Headdings said.

As Paul sized up Looney from beyond the 3-point line, the rest of the Rockets cleared out, opening the lane for Paul. He promptly drove past Looney and scored on a layup, absorbing a foul for good measure.

“That was a great call,” Engebretsen said. “It might be something we have to add.”



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