Dallas Mavericks run afoul of San Antonio Spurs defensive principles


Matt Bonner fouls Dirk NowitzkiFor all the anticipation surrounding Manu Ginobili’s return, it was the San Antonio Spurs focus and attention to details that were most sorely missed in the Game 1 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.

For much of the past decade the trinity of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker carried the headlines, but it was Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich’s defensive schemes that provided the backbone for everything.

One of the understated tenets of the San Antonio Spurs defense: do not foul. And especially, do not foul jump shooters.

The final score read San Antonio Spurs 94, Dallas Mavericks 100, but another set of numbers may as well have grabbed the headlines–San Antonio Spurs 14, Dallas Mavericks 34.

Even removing the purposeful free throws Popovich decided to award Erik Dampier, the free throw disparity is staggering.

There will always be things beyond the Spurs control, like Dirk Nowitzki shooting 12-14 from the field on a variety of difficult fadeaway jumpers, or George Hill’s ankle still being balky. But as tempting as it may be to lay the free throw disparity at the feet of the referees, the fouls were absolutely something San Antonio could have gotten a handle on.

Defense, as always, is a mindset and attention to detail. In the words of former San Antonio Spurs defensive ace Bruce Bowen, via Sports Illustrated.

“You’ve got to get lower, you’ve got to be quicker,” Bowen says. “My biggest thing is to make sure I show my hands. Because a lot of times the officials call for things like this”—he stabs out with his hands—”jabbing at the ball, touching the midsection, things like that.

“So if [the offensive player] puts the ball on the floor, I have my hands out and [the referees] can see them. Then whenever contact is made, if he goes into me, I go, ‘Hey!’ The official sees my hands.” And no foul is called, while the opposing player, his coach and several assistants predictably throw tantrums in complaint.

The Dallas Mavericks are the top free throw shooting team (percentage wise) in the NBA. Putting the Mavericks in the bonus early is a recipe for disaster.

At the heart of the problem is what to do with Dirk Nowitzki. He’s 7-feet tall, he can shoot, he’s an MVP candidate most years.

He’s also one of the most craftily clumsy players in the history of the NBA.That’s meant as a compliment. For a guy whose signature move is a fadeaway jumper, he knows how to get to the line. Barrel in, create contact, fade, shoot and fall. Wash, rinse, repeat.

For all his tremendous skills, in the end Dirk Nowitzki is still a jump shooter. And at 7-feet tall with a natural fade to his jump shot, there really isn’t much anyone can do to contest them. Putting him at the line 15-feet from the basket without a defender in sight is not going to alleviate the situation.

A lot has been made of San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich’s decision to go single coverage on Nowitzki for most of the night. I would argue that a 7-footer shooting a fadeaway over two players is the same shot as a 7-footer shooting a fadeaway over one.

Is that to say that Dirk Nowitzki is an unstoppable offensive machine? On some nights, yes. That’s the nature of the beast when dealing with the greatest scorers on the planet. But you don’t compound these nights by sending him to the line.

Are there adjustments to be made for Antonio McDyess, Matt Bonner or whoever else Gregg Popovich decides to throw on Dirk Nowitzki? They can start, as Bruce Bowen mentioned, by always showing their hands and avoiding fouls.

A little more attention to detail before Dirk catches the ball could also be paid. Bruce Bowen may not be here any longer, but his words still ring true:

Unfortunately for the San Antonio Spurs, Bruce Bowen isn’t walking through that door. And while this first loss was depressing, it is not the first time Tim Duncan and company have lost Game 1 of the first round.

So heading into Game 2, who still thinks the Spurs can improve upon their NBA playoffs debut? And how can Antonio McDyess and Matt Bonner do a better job on Dirk Nowitzki?

For both questions, let me see a show of hands.

  • johnson

    Man, we just need to contain the other players…let dirk get his, because he will. we just need RJ to stop being useless and score. we are starting to look really old =(

  • Bushka


    That makes sense to a degree. The science is sound enough, I just don’t think Ian is up to it.

    I would love to make Dirk play post D, I just honestly don’t think Ian has enough polish to do it.

  • Jim Henderson

    April 21st, 2010 at 4:25 pm


    That makes sense to a degree. The science is sound enough, I just don’t think Ian is up to it.

    I would love to make Dirk play post D, I just honestly don’t think Ian has enough polish to do it.


    You may be right, but we may have to try something out of the box to get by the Mavs, particularly if we lose game two, or three.

  • Bushka

    Yeah the mavs came back to earth tonight and still nearly got the game with that run at the end of the 3rd start of the fourth.

    It’s going to be a wild 7 games in my opinion.

  • Jim Henderson

    “It’s going to be a wild 7 games in my opinion.”

    I agree. That’s what I had assumed at the outset. And tonight’s game certainly solidifies the outlook. RJ stepped up tonight! We have a better shot now in this series. Yeah!

  • Dave

    Zainn is sane :)

  • Simon

    Serge “Ibaka with the blocka” is everything the Spurs hoped Ian Mahinmi would be. Of course Ibaka has gotten more opportunity to play than Mahinmi.

    Why the Spurs couldn’t have given him some guaranteed minutes (like the 1st 6 minutes of every 2nd qtr for example) for a 20 game stretch during the season made no sense to me. But, I don’t think he’s the answer to Nowitski, but if he’s 8 for 10 already, it wouldn’t hurt to try. To put pressure on Nowitski to play defense the Spurs should play Blair or Mahnimi more.

  • Lee


    That makes sense to a degree. The science is sound enough, I just don’t think Ian is up to it.

    I would love to make Dirk play post D, I just honestly don’t think Ian has enough polish to do it.

  • Pingback: How will the Spurs defend Dirk Nowitzki in Game 2?()