Duke basketball: How Blue Devils pulled off their best offensive game

Duke basketball (Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports)
Duke basketball (Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports) /

The Duke basketball offense was smooth in a dominant victory over Syracuse.

In the first half of their 85-71 home win over Syracuse (13-7, 7-6 ACC) on Monday night, the Duke basketball players came out firing. And they never relented.

Now, with a four-game win streak in tow, these Blue Devils (11-8, 9-6 ACC) look almost unrecognizable in comparison to when they got beat down at home against Michigan State and Illinois in the first month of the season. They look far more comfortable on offense, and everyone is playing with a ton of confidence.

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During the nonconference and early parts of conference play, the Blue Devils were a mess on offense. Duke struggled mightily with turnovers and poor shot selection in the halfcourt. There were numerous games when the squad would have more turnovers than assists and made 3-pointers combined.

Those struggles were nonexistent against Syracuse. Duke had a season-high 27 assists and 13 makes beyond the arc.

One of the keys to Duke’s outstanding play was the performance of the freshman backcourt. Both DJ Steward and Jeremy Roach played their best games of the season. The pair got off to a red-hot start shooting the basketball. The two combined for 35 points, 14 assists, and eight 3-pointers.

Duke needed to have a hot shooting night to break down Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone, and that’s exactly what it got.

Roach has had his ups and downs shooting the ball this year, but he certainly found his shooting stroke against the Orange. What’s even more encouraging about his performance was the seven assists. As mainly a scoring guard rather than a distributor, he averages just 2.8 assists per game.

He has already shown that he can be a reliable scoring option. Yet Roach’s ability to get others involved will play a big part in helping the Blue Devils sustain their current high-level play.

Mark Williams was once again the story for Duke. The 7-foot freshman played just a handful of minutes against Virginia because Jaemyn Brakefield was playing extremely well. Then last night, Brakefield only saw a handful of minutes due to the excellent play of Williams.

Williams was able to exploit Syracuse’s lack of size and strength on the inside. Duke’s guards were able to throw lobs right over the top of the zone for easy dunks by the center. He also made it difficult for Syracuse to get any easy looks at the basket and dominated the glass with a game-high 11 rebounds, including an incredible put-back dunk.

Earlier in the season, Duke was highly susceptible to giving up easy paint points. Williams’ ability to affect shots on defense and catch lobs on offense provides the Blue Devils with a completely different dynamic. He seems to be getting better each game that he plays.

Yes, we are in the era of small ball, but having a big man to throw the ball into on offense and a reliable rim protector will make any team better. Just the presence of Williams on the floor makes Duke a better team overall.

Duke basketball’s overall tremendous improvement on offense

We have heard the coaching staff and players say all the cliches: “Just have to keep working” or “Gotta just take one day at a time and continue to get better.” But the results are starting to come in.

The Blue Devils look like a much more confident offensive team. They are making better decisions with the ball, getting better ball movement, and taking much better shots. The offense features far less isolation and 1-on-1 basketball.

Guys are turning down decent shots to get great shots on offense.

With two big wins over Virginia and Syracuse, the Blue Devils finally look like a tournament team for the first time this year. They still have some work to do, but they are certainly headed in the right direction.

Duke will stay in Durham to face Louisville (11-5, 6-4 ACC) at 6 p.m. Saturday. The Cardinals are a projected NCAA Tournament team, so this win would be huge. The Blue Devils fell to Louisville on the road earlier this year in a close game. But now they look like a completely different team.

So hopefully, a sharp Duke basketball offense shows up to avenge that loss.

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