The offense is rolling, all is well

Rasheed Sulaimon

When Duke has contributions from secondary players, the Blue Devils are very tough to beat writes Jim Young...

Rasheed Sulaimon, by nature, is a bit of a glass-half-empty guy.

In the locker room, after Duke's 75-67 win over N.C. State in the ACC Tournament semifinals, Sulaimon couldn't help but dwell in his 1-for-6 performance at the free throw line.

"I'm probably going to beat myself up over that," he said, and then vowed to get up some shots from the foul line some time between now and the title game.

"I'm a perfectionist."

No, Sulaimon's performance against State wasn't perfect. But it was very, very, very good. He was aggressive right from the start, attacking the rim and finishing with regularity, piling up 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting.

That performance on its own is a welcome addition for the Blue Devils. Getting an additional offensive contribution from Quinn Cook as well? That creates an almost unsolvable dilemma for opposing defenses, which are naturally programmed to focus on Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood.

"For our team to be successful, we have to play through Jabari and Rodney. Those guys are mismatch problems for whomever we play," Sulaimon said. "Some games, when they're going, you've just got to keep feeding them.

"But other games, , when the defense is adjusted to try to stop them, it's my job and other guys' to be aggressive and take their opportunities when they present themselves, to make the defense play honest.

"When we can do that, we can be a very hard team to beat."

This isn't a typical defense-first Duke team. A quick glance at Ken Pomeroy's efficiency rankings makes that clear. The Blue Devils are just 86th in the country in defensive efficiency, just one spot ahead of Virginia Tech.

But on offense? On that end of the floor, Duke is elite, boasting a 123.9 offensive efficiency rating that is second-best in the nation.

In other words, this Blue Devils team is at its best when it's using its offense to put pressure on opponents to keep pace. And its offense is at its peak level when the supporting case – Sulaimon and Cook in particular – are helping out Parker and Hood.

On Saturday, Sulaimon and Cook combined to 11 of 17 shots and score 30 points. That pretty much matched the productivity of Hood and Parker (12 of 25, 34 points).

Those widespread contributions were needed, because N.C. State picked up right where Clemson did offensively, making 16 of 24 first half shots. That completed a 40-minute stretch in which Duke allowed its opponents to make 30 of 45 shots (66.7 percent).

Yet despite that torrid shooting from the Wolfpack, still Duke led by one at the break. On this team, offense can solve a lot of what ails the Blue Devils.

Eventually State did slow down on offense. The Wolfpack looked a bit gassed while playing its third game in three days, but give Duke's defense some credit as well. The Blue Devils made a critical change in how Hood defended State's scoring machine, T.J. Warren. After getting burned on backdoor cuts while trying to overplay and deny Warren the ball early on, Hood lobbied the coaching staff to allow him to just play "our normal way," as Mike Krzyzewski described it.

Meanwhile, Duke's offense kept rolling along, improving on its 50% shooting in the first half by making 13 of 19 shots (68.4%) in the second half. At one point State borrowed a tactic multiple teams have tried against Duke this season – going zone.

Cook quashed that strategy with one shot, taking a pass from Josh Hairston and hitting a 3-pointer just to the right of the top of the circle. Though Cook is a point guard by description, and Sulaimon is more of a college two-guard by size, Sulaimon's best work is done attacking off the dribble, while Cook's biggest games have come when he's knocking down shots beyond the arc.

"Coach gets on me if I don't shoot when I'm open," Cook said. "I was just taking my shots with confidence."

That confidence has been hit or miss this season for Cook, who has lost his starting job and seen his minutes dip. Meanwhile Sulaimon has earned the displeasure of the coaching staff at various points this season.

But all of that was pushed to the background on Saturday. These were the versions of Cook and Sulaimon that Duke was expecting to see this season – the versions that could make the Blue Devils a March threat, even if the defense isn't up to the usual Duke standards.

"I don't think there's a team that can do that in the country, where you have five or six guys that can get to double figures on any night," Cook said.

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