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The concept of 'two nine,' or how big men patrol the paint

Players are technically allowed to stand in the paint for three seconds while guarding nobody. We explain how that fact has created NBA jargon that teams practice to maximize that time.

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

"You all gotta two nine right there. Two nine and clear. Two nine and cleanse. Come on now. Two nine."

Read that quote over again, but this time with a syrupy-sweet combination of a West Virginia and South Carolina accent. That's how I first heard the phrase "two nine," used by then-Knicks (now Lakers) assistant coach Dan D'Antoni, Mike's brother. Let me dispel a rampant NBA urban myth: The D'Antoni family does talk about and instruct defensive principles in practice.

"Two nine" is indeed a core NBA defensive concept. It refers to the 2.9 seconds that a player can theoretically spend in the paint without actively guarding an offensive player before defensive three seconds is called. This is a byproduct of the NBA's new rules established early this millennium, which allowed zone defense so long as players couldn't just camp in the middle and stop the dynamic slashers who work their magic from the perimeter.

Previously, we discussed the nail, the help defense spot that anchors the top of the defense. The nail is primarily the home of guards and wings, living to help or help the helper. "Two nine" land is the habitat of all players, but is especially important to big men. Huge dudes who clog the lane like human condominiums.

The best "two nine" big men will bottle up the middle of the key for exactly 2.9 seconds (or usually, much, much longer without being called) while overseeing the defense like an air traffic controller. Visualize Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler and maybe DeAndre Jordan.

While taking up valuable real estate in the middle of the key, the "two nine" man will look to touch off on any opposing player moving through his area. Each time he can touch off on an offensive player, the "two nine" man is "cleansing," or starting the 2.9-second clock anew. The defensive player can also accomplish restarting the count by actively guarding an offensive player or completely moving out of the key area. The "two nine" man will move from side to side with the footwork of an elite dancer, clogging and cleansing.

In order to stay in the paint, the defender must be actively guarding an offensive player. "Actively guarding" is defined as "being within arm's length of an offensive player and in a guarding position," according to Section VII [a] of the NBA rulebook. For an example, note how Roy Hibbert is moving towards his man in this GIF. (Technically, this might be a three-second violation, but it went uncalled.)


Or DeAndre Jordan in this GIF.


Another result of the change in zone rules and the rise of "two nine" is the overloading of the defense to the ball side of the floor. This is a wrinkle most closely associated with Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. In the past, the "two nine" man would slide into the key, use his allotted time and clear back to his own player on the opposite side of the court. Now, the defensive big will "two nine," clog, cleanse and then go to the strong-side block or higher, closer to the man with the ball. What you end up with in many situations is three players vs. two on the side where the ball is and two defensive players zoning up against three offensive players on the opposite side. All five defensive players moving on a string, trusting that they'll all be able to watch each other's backs and move in unison.

This hybrid defensive configuration is the biggest result of the rule changes. By defending this way, you should be able to dictate who ends up with the open shot on the other team. In other words, you can dare the weakest offensive player to beat you. Preferably with long two-pointers.

Hoosier Hysteria

Offensively, the "two nine" concept and the rise of hybrid defenses has made it harder and harder to hide a non-shooter. It has forced offenses to adapt with more ball movement and cutting, with the goal being to try to move the "two nine" man side to side. As long as players are hanging out in the paint for extended periods of time, offensive actions need to be quick hitting or have the ability to move the defense. Teams now run more multi-layered plays. Some are designed to free up shooters and some are designed to create a distraction to open up a different play.

The smartest offensive players have also learned to how to attack the "two nine" man. They will initiate their own moves to the hoop just as the defensive player starts to move out of the key. Timing is everything, so two attacking dribbles should get you to the rim before the "two nine" defender can recover. What was once checkers has now become chess.

As for the risk of getting caught: In the last 10 years, there has been an average of 0.711 defensive three seconds calls made per game. This season, through 309 games, there's been an average of just 0.597 per game, according to the league. Point being: The remote possibility of being caught is a very small price to pay for keeping the paint clogged.

"So, y'all, I need more and more two nine. Two nine. Cleanse. Two nine." -Doug E, with a syrupy-sweet Canadian accent

ATO(s) of the Week

Jan. 7, 2014: Spurs 96, Grizzlies 96, 13 seconds left in fourth quarter. Spurs ball.

The past week in the NBA was cruising along with boring efficiency with nary an exciting after-timeout play to be found. I was almost searching YouTube for a retro breakdown of the 1951 Rochester Royals running a special action for Arnie Risen. But then the San Antonio Spurs went into overtime against the Memphis Grizzlies and produced two outstanding ATOs. Thanks, Gregg Popovich.

The interesting aspect of both San Antonio ATO plays is that they are relatively long form in nature. So often, we are watching ATOs that are quick hitters for special situations, such as a three-pointer. This week, we get to enjoy two actions out of timeouts that play out much like any other half-court set. However, time and place condense the pressure and importance of both ATOs.

With 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Spurs inbounded the ball in front of their bench. The Grizzlies had erased a 16-point deficit with a late 21-5 run and have the Spurs reeling. Pop will set up a common side out of bounds, with Tony Parker taking the ball out. Tim Duncan sets at the high post with Manu Ginobili down below at the low block. Boris Diaw moves over to the opposite slot area, with Marco Belinelli in the far corner.


This type of San Antonio alignment would normally indicate a cut up the lane off a Duncan screen by Ginobili -- a "zipper" cut in basketball lingo -- that would then flow into a pick-and-roll with Diaw. With that primary action going on, Duncan would then screen across and down for Tony Parker, coming in from out of bounds.

OK, Grizzlies, set your defense. I have spoken.

Manu does indeed make that cut up the lane and off Tim Duncan. James Johnson stays with the Argentinean. Parker inbounds the ball to Ginobili and simply steps into the court of play, with Mike Conley maintaining a solid defensive position between his man and the ball. Zach Randolph stays under Tim Duncan, while Belinelli and Diaw remain stationary for the time being.


At the 8.7-second mark, Manu makes a return pass to Parker on the wing and proceeds to make a UCLA cut off Duncan at the high post, moving to the short corner area.


Johnson does a good job locking on Ginobili's hip and staying with him on the cut. Because Johnson trails, he is on the top side of Manu as he settles down in the short corner. However, this will become an error soon.

On the opposite side, Belinelli and Diaw basically exchange spots at the :06.4 mark. A little movement equals questions for the individual defenders, Courtney Lee and Ed Davis.


Once Ginobili clears past Duncan, Parker initiates the final phase of the ATO with a pass to the Big Fundamental at the elbow. At this point, there is enough time remaining for Parker to set a down screen to free Ginobili or for Duncan to wheel and play dribble handoff with Belinelli coming from the opposite wing. The Grizzlies are in pretty good shape defensively, positioned to deny penetration and the pull-up jumper.

Well, except James Johnson, who is still hugging Ginobili's top side shoulder.


This is where years of being together comes into play for the Spurs. In the blink of an eye, Manu makes a sharp backdoor cut on Johnson. Timmy hits him in stride, and the longtime international makes a reverse layup, albeit with his strong (left) hand. Manu finishes between a closing Ed Davis and his own defender, Johnson.


Just to make it a totally Manu moment, he begs for a foul. Pained expression and pleading soccer hands. Such a nice sight to see.


Game. Set. Almost match. Hey, #LeaguePassAlert, Conley comes right back and uses the remaining 3.6 seconds to tie the game to send it into overtime. That sets up ...

Jan. 7, 2014: Spurs 109, Grizzlies 109, 8 seconds left in overtime. Spurs ball.

The Spurs' second longform ATO takes place with eight seconds remaining. Once again, Popovich chooses to take the ball out in front of the scorer's table and the Spurs bench. Tony Parker again has the ball, ready to trigger the action.

The Spurs go with a different look this time. Manu moves to the opposite block with Tim Duncan at the other block. Kawhi Leonard is at the top of the key and Danny Green sets up at the three-point line on the opposite side.


This setup shouts out some kind of flex action, with either Duncan or Ginobili setting a cross screen and then receiving a down screen from either Leonard or Green. With so little time left, Memphis will most likely be switching most (if not all) screens to prevent a player from flashing open. The downside: San Antonio should probably have enough time to exploit any mismatches that occur.

As anticipated, Ginobili makes a hard baseline cut off of a Duncan screen, clearing through to the corner. Johnson does an excellent job staying with him off the screen. The flex action then comes with a Kawhi down screen for Duncan, freeing Timmy to cut up to the three-point line area. Leonard clears through to the corner after his screen.


Zach Randolph and Ed Davis switch and all is solid with the Memphis defense. For now.

Parker once again inbounds the ball to Duncan, but this time TP9 cuts hard off the pass, setting up a potential handoff from Duncan. Timmy fakes the handoff and proceeds to dribble at Ginobili in the corner. After being burned backdoor in regulation, Johnson is in a more passive position between his man and the hoop.


Ginobili and Duncan use this short-term memory to run a beautiful dribble handoff. Ginobili receives the ball with speed and moving to his strong left hand. Johnson and Davis make the required switch, but every defender is now a half step behind.

Here is where individual talent and brilliance take over. As Ginobili hits the free-throw line with four Grizzlies defenders' feet in the paint , he executes an amazing hesitation dribble, freezing Davis and causing Conley to abandon his help position to move back out to Tony Parker. The move also causes Zach Randolph to hesitate at his help position at the low block. This is the picture right after the Grizzlies realize that Ginobili is accelerating again.


Manu explodes from his hesitation, slices between Davis and Randolph and finishes like a much younger version of himself off of the backboard. Juego. Establecer. Partido.

While these two Pop ATOs don't quite have the excitement of the last-second actions featured earlier in this space, they are consummate examples of setting players up to succeed by both anticipating what the defense will do and what your own team's strengths and weaknesses are against that D. A subtle bottle of Falesco Lazio Montiano for Coach Pop.

** If you have an ATO to suggest, please tweet or email me with #ebeATO

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