Defending Dirk in Game 2
For the San Antonio Spurs, defending Dirk Nowitzki in Game 1 of their Western Conference Quarterfinal Series was damn-near a lost cause. The Dallas Mavericks forward torched the Spurs for 36 points on 12-14 shooting from the field.
How the Spurs choose to defend Nowitzki in Game 2 will go a long way in determining the outcome of the game. And how this series plays out. Win Game 2, and the Spurs go back to San Antonio with a split and the momentum.
But leaving Dallas in an 0-2 hole puts a lot of pressure on this Spurs team. Suddenly, whispers about the Mavs having the Spurs number and the impact of 2006 start getting louder.
So what do the Spurs do to slow down Dirk? It’s obvious there’s no stopping him. He’s an elite offensive player; the Spurs only hope is to make it as hard as possible for him to score and limit his opportunities to set up his teammates.
The battle starts before Dirk even gets the ball.
If he gets the ball in scoring position, which is almost anywhere inside half court for him, then all bets are off. The Spurs already lost that possession and can only hope for the best. Instead, the Spurs need to deny the Mavs forward the ball with reckless abandon.
The Spur guarding Dirk should have no help responsibilities on the defensive end of the floor. For instance, if Antonio McDyess is guarding Nowitzki and Jason Terry beats Tony Parker off the dribble, McDyess stays at home and makes sure that Dirk doesn’t get the ball with a good look at the basket. The other three defenders for the Spurs can figure out what to do about Terry. McDyess needs to stay disciplined and stay at home. The only time Nowitzki’s man should help is if he’s the last line of defense and giving up a layup.
Several times during Game 1, Matt Bonner and McDyess left Dirk to help. Only once did Dirk miss the resulting open jumpshot. If the Spurs can keep one person at home on Dirk at all times, they can spend more time keeping the defensive end of the floor a 4-on-4 game.
There are two sets where the Spurs will have trouble denying Nowitzki the ball. The first scenario is when Dallas sets a screen for Nowitzki on the weak side of the floor, away from the ball. When Dallas did this in Game 1, Dirk went baseline off the screen and received a pass near the mid post. There’s so much space on this play for him to create separation from his man off the screen and get the ball.
San Antonio’s best bet on those plays is for the help defense to communicate to the Spur guarding the ball that he needs to pressure the passer. Getting good pressure on the passer can discourage a pass, result in a deflection or steal, or alter the pass enough to give the Spur guarding Dirk time to recover or take Nowitzki out of position.
As my high school coach used to say, “the best post defense is pressuring the passer.”
The second situation where San Antonio will struggle to deny Dirk the ball is when he is the roll man on a pick-and-roll. The Mavericks like to free Nowitzki up by using him to set picks for the ball handler, usually for Terry or Jason Kidd. When Dirk sets the pick, the man guarding him usually has to help on the ball handler. Depending on what the guard who was picked does, Nowitzki either ends up wide open or with a smaller man guarding him. Both are an advantage for Dallas.
The tactic the Spurs employed in Game 1, and what is probably their best option, was to have a rover watching the German on the pick-and-roll. After the guard came off of Nowitzki’s screen, both the Spur guarding the ball and the man guarding Dirk went with the ball handler. As Dirk rolled to a spot on the perimeter, a Spur defender away from the play rotated over to cover Dirk and discourage a pass to the Mavs forward.
The concerns with defending Dirk on the pick-and-roll this way are rotations. If the other two Spurs defenders away from the play aren’t aware of where the other Mavs are, Dallas will have their choice of open shots. Luckily for San Antonio, Dallas missed many over their open shots in the first half of Game 1. Crisp rotations are key here.
If Bonner or McDyess is defending Nowitzki, his job is simple, hedge the pick and roll hard and then get back to Dirk as quick as possible. If they hedged the pick-and-roll right, the guard’s path to the basket was impeded or blocked altogether. From there, it’s the other Spur’s responsibility to fight through Nowitzki’s pick and get back in the play. Bonner or McDyess’ priority is Nowitzki.
In the event Dallas brings the ball up court and looks to post-up Dirk early on the shot clock, the Spurs must front him. Nowitzki scored a significant portion of his points in Game 1 from the post. Playing behind him and allowing the entry pass is an open invitation for two points. But playing in front of him with backside help not only denies him entry pass, but nearly takes Nowitzki out of the play. Dirk isn’t the type of player who’s going to pin his man under the rim as the ball rotates around the perimeter.
But as much work as the Spurs can do to deny Dirk Nowitzki the ball in Game 2, he’s still going to get it. Plenty. And it’s when that occurs that most of the discussion around how to guard Nowitzki begins.
The farther from the basket the Spurs can force Dirk to get the ball, the more potential for success their defensive possession has. If Nowitzki’s defender can deny him the ball and usher him out to the perimeter to catch the pass, it increases the likelihood that Dirk will get rid of the ball with out forcing a double- or triple-team.
This also makes it more likely that Dirk will be in an isolation situation. When the Mavs isolated their star forward this season, he scored just .92 points per possession and shot 40.5%. Compared to his averages of 1.05 points per possession and 48.2% from the field in all situations, Dirk simply doesn’t do as much damage when isolated one-on-one as he does in other sets. (Note: Thanks to Synergy Sports for the data.)
In the first half of Game 1, San Antonio played Nowitzki one-on-one in most situations. Occasionally, Coach Popovich would send a late double-team to throw off Dirk’s timing, but it was mostly single coverage. And despite the efficiency from Dirk shooting the ball, San Antonio was able to limit other Mavs players’ effectiveness. Except Caron Butler, who had the best game of his season, which I don’t expect him to repeat.
In the fourth quarter, the Spurs furiously double- and triple-teamed Nowitzki with less success. Nowitzki only scored four points in the quarter, but involved the rest of his team by spreading the ball around. Nowitzki had one assists and three Greztky’s – or hockey assists – where Dirk made the pass that lead to the assist. The resulting points were all scored in the stretch of the fourth quarter were Dallas put the game out of reach.
Personally, I don’t like the idea of sending multiple defenders at Dirk because of the areas on the floor he tends to occupy. He spends the majority of his time near the free throw line, the mid-post or on the perimeter. In these spots, there are no boundaries, like the baseline or sideline, to use as extra defenders.
Instead, Dirk can admire the landscape and distribute the ball where he wants it. He is a good passer, tall enough to see over most defenders and he possesses the discipline not to bring the ball down below his chin – unless he’s dribbling at the basket. By playing him one-on-one, the Spurs discourage ball movement from the Mavericks in hopes of preventing Dallas’ complimentary players from getting in rhythm.
So who draws the short straw and has the pleasure of defending Mr. Nowitzki? The majority of that duty went to Antonio McDyess and Matt Bonner in Game 1, and for good reason. McDyess did the most commendable job on Nowitzki, though foul trouble limited his time on Dirk in the second half. Bonner also played well on Dirk, but Bonner’s strength on defense lies in his ability to play a help role and rotate properly (which is why his Adjusted +/- is usually so high).
However, Bonner and McDyess rarely see the floor at the same time, so it’s usually one or the other guarding Dirk. And if the other option is putting Tim Duncan or DeJuan Blair on Dirk, I’d stick with Bonner. Duncan can defend Nowitzki, but the potential of Duncan getting in foul trouble is too high for my liking. I’d rather keep Duncan in a help role, quarterbacking the defense.
And I’d keep Richard Jefferson as far away from guarding Dirk as possible. Jefferson is not physical enough on Nowitzki and at a disadvantage height-wise. You can be one or the other when guarding Dirk, but not both.
On Nowitzki in Game 1, Antonio MyDyess did an excellent job staying in front of Dirk and getting a hand in his face.Â Many times, it was McDyess’ left hand too, which is the right way to do it. Nowitzki is a right-handed shooter. However, many defenders are right-handed also. So when a right-handed defender puts his dominant arm up against a right-handed shooter, their reach is usually an inch or two shorter, because they are reaching across the shooter’s body. But left-handed defenders don’t reach across the body and thus appear to have a longer reach. It’s a game of inches, and any little bit counts.
McDyess also excelled at staying on the floor against Nowitzki. Along with Rasheed Wallace, Dirk has one of the highest release points in the league on his jump shot. Very few players can actually block his shot, and I doubt many Spurs can do it. So when he throws a pump fake at a defender and they bite, it opens up a world of hurt for the rest of the defense. The defender guarding Dirk needs to stay on the floor and put a hand in his face, preferably their left.
Can Dirk torch this gameplan just as easily as he torched the one the Spurs used on him in Game 1? Sure, he’s a great offensive player, and that’s what they do. But there were holes in the way the Spurs defended Nowitzki in the first game of this series and some changes need to be made, and others reinforced, against one of the toughest covers and mismatches in the league.
Have fun with that.