Kawhi Leonard the key if Mavericks stick to scheme

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Tony Parker used to play basketball in a different pair shoes. Not of the endorsement-deal variety, but the metaphorical type he donned as a rookie in the San Antonio Spurs’ organization.

“(Tim Duncan) didn’t talk to me for a whole year. It was kind of weird, coming from France and your superstar player doesn’t talk to you as a point guard. It’s kind of tough, you know? Aren’t you supposed to talk to everybody?” Parker asked with a grin. “But as we grew together in the league and he trusted me more, now I can really say it’s a special relationship.”

Even with all the time, players and coaches that have passed by and through San Antonio, it’s a relationship—along with Manu Ginobili—that’s still as strong as ever, and still winning basketball games on the side.

The Hall-of-Fame trio combined for 65 of the Spurs’ 90 points, nine of the team’s 14 assists and 25 of its 35 field goals against the Mavericks in a 90-85 Game 1 win in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs, a contribution that wasn’t exactly expected, but necessary. Necessary, while not exactly ideal. San Antonio’s historically vaunted bench crew (dubbed the ‘Foreign Legion’) pulled a disappearing act—outside of Manu’s 17 points, six boards and three assists—in the face of the Mavericks’ switching scheme, and shooters could find no space to set their feet and launch.

Danny Green, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills, the Spurs’ most regularly consistent and important perimeter shooters, failed to tally a single point and combined to shoot 0-of-6 from the arc with the likes of Jose Calderon marking them at the 3-point line, and a Spurs team that averaged nearly 20 spot-up jumpers per game during the regular season found room to put up only nine on Sunday. Rick Carlisle hatched a plan that nearly worked to perfection, turning typically motion-oriented San Antonio into an unwilling isolation team left with a dearth of more efficient options for much of the time.

The Spurs are notoriously anti-isolation, going one-on-one on just 5.2 percent of plays during the regular season. In Game 1, that percentage more than doubled, forcing the type of game the aforementioned role players are ill-equipped to handle.

“I think that early in the game, even though Tony was successful attacking the bigs, we kind of stopped. That’s what they wanted us to do,” Ginobili said, just hours after his wife delivered the couple’s third baby boy (MORE GINOBILETS!). “We became more predictable. If they switch, we’ve got to keep moving, penetrating, pitching, moving and creating. That’s going to be important for us.”

It’s not as if this team hasn’t seen this game plan before. In fact, it’s been this scheme that has provided the largest speed bumps for San Antonio over the last several years. It’s designed to all but eliminate 3-point opportunities by essentially never leaving shooters at the expense of potentially surrendering easier 2-point buckets. Against the Spurs, that’s often the much more palatable poison to pick.

“We got killed on 3s in the first four (games) this year. It was no secret we stayed a little more home on the 3-point shooters,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “You have to give them something, and Duncan in there is obviously still solid … but two points is better than three.”

Again, this isn’t the first time teams have switched on Spurs pick-and-rolls, and it won’t be the last. Teams like Oklahoma City and Miami employ this practice, only first they juice it up on hypothetical steroids. Even Portland and Houston—the two possible opponents for the Spurs-Mavs winner in the second round—use this plan, though it’s possible I’m confusing the act of ‘switching’ with whatever the hell it is James Harden does on the defensive end.

If Dallas continues to switch on the perimeter and stick to shooters, the burden will once again fall on the Big Three to continue their sustained brilliance.

“Again, with the style of defense they did on us, it’s harder to get Marco open or Danny open. Now Kawhi, he doesn’t need us to create for him,” Ginobili added. “Pop is going to call plays for him. It doesn’t matter who scores.

“We really don’t care if we score 50 points from the bench or not,” he continued. “We just want to score more points than them. If it’s the starters, good. If it’s the bench, whatever.”

Leonard as a rookie didn’t talk much to Duncan, either, but not because the Spurs’ seven-foot franchise cornerstone wasn’t willing. Inherently, Kawhi isn’t a man of many words, but he’s a figure of much importance. He’s stepped into those shoes Parker used to wear, the ones that quickly became a major piece of the puzzle after only a couple of years.

As effective as Duncan, Ginobili and Parker have remained, not one of the three has the legs he used to. They may still be enough to end the Mavericks’ season, but more length, talent and athleticism loom down the postseason road. The Spurs will need more than just the six points the reserves not named Manu chipped in on Easter, but more importantly they’re going to need Leonard—who scored just 11 points, but grabbed 10 boards in Game 1—to exploit the obvious advantage he has over whichever defender is assigned to him.

The Spurs overwhelmed opponents with continuity during the regular season, where one of 10, 11 or 12 players could go off on any given night. But Leonard was always the backbreaker, the one who turned the tide of games on both sides of the ball within only a couple of possessions.

He’s the kind of wrecking ball that can hit back where the concentrated playoff pressure has hamstrung role players in the past, and Dallas doesn’t have the personnel to physically match up with Kawhi, especially when using Shawn Marion on Parker and in switches. This series can be more difficult than it has to be without necessarily extending beyond four or five games, but San Antonio is going to have to rediscover the method to breaking down a defensive scheme the coaching staff hadn’t quite anticipated on the eve of the postseason. That starts with Leonard, who can’t let the Mavs get away with sticking Monta Ellis on his hip.

If Pop has to pull a line change early in the second quarter to remove his ineffective second unit in favor of those starters then so be it, even if it means the use of Matt “break glass in case of emergency” Bonner. Regardless of who plays, the ball is going to have to move more quickly, bodies more effectively and minds more clearly if the Spurs offense of old is to emerge from the Game 1 slop.

But if it gets ugly again, and if the team has to hitch its wagon to the backs of the Big Three, Leonard’s young legs may be what it needs to clear the hurdle once more.

  • samhl

    they still lost when all spurs not including big three didn’t have a good night offensively, no one made a 3 except for manu and we still won. the reason is we played good defense and limited them to 85 points. Dirk will may not be limited to 11 pts but we have the players who can guard him and slow him down , not like before . and kawai can guard any guard who goes hot, and green is a nice compliment defensively.

    this game was close because the spurs were surprised that the mavs came for the first win and didn’t crumble like before. but now the first game is over and we are up 1-0 and 3 games to go , and i don’t think they will manage to win 4 vs us . this strategy will help them to win 1 game at the most when the spurs are not shooting well and tony and manu not playing well to create of the dribble.

  • I need more cowbell

    I see patty going off in game 2. Playoff jitters probably got to him. Also i think Diaw Duncan Splitter Parker and Leonard group would be great. Diaw would do interior passes and Parker and Leonard can score if nothing happens.

  • jgonzaba

    The Spurs did not look like themselves. No ball movement. Mav’s were doing something right on defense. Spurs got super lucky from the rimmed out shots in the final minutes. However, that’s basketball. I think the Spurs will switch up their strategy and shake off the rust in game 2.