A look at how the Spurs cracked that Mavs zone in the final minutes

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Against the ropes and staring up out of a 15-point hole, Rick Carlisle threw his patented zone defense at San Antonio with about five and a half minutes remaining in his team’s matchup with the Spurs. Suddenly, a high-school game broke out, and Dallas came screaming back in the blink of an eye.

The Mavs ripped off a 12-0 run in a 93-second span before Gregg Popovich stopped the bleeding with a timeout that gave his team a chance to breathe. San Antonio was scrambling, taking bad shots and giving the ball away in a very charitable fashion. You don’t see it often at the NBA level — the kind of calamity that often takes place in the chaotic waning moments of games in prep and college sports. But until Pop slowed the madness, the Spurs tried to give this one away.

From there, Tim Duncan took over.

Dallas went back to a man defense in order to surprise the Spurs again following the timeout. So Boris Diaw drove and hit Duncan on a step-in under the basket when Samuel Dalembert was forced to step up on penetration, and Timmy added to the lead again just moments later when Manu Ginobili found him on a roll through the throat of the Dallas defense for the lay-in.

San Antonio was able to calm its nerves and survive what turned out to be a pretty wild 116-107 win in Dallas, and Duncan kept the magic carpet ride rolling with a 21-point, 13-rebound performance that came with dominant defense at the rim as well.

Side note: Diaw beat Monta Ellis with a hilarious near-carry crossover that went around the guard’s head on that first score out of the break. I guess you can do that sort of stuff with a 5-inch height advantage.

Dallas had returned to the zone prior to Duncan’s layup out of the pick and roll with Ginobili; but the Spurs executed exactly as they should have, which wasn’t the case in the minutes prior when the Mavs forced two turnovers and three missed shots during their 12-0 explosion.

The general rule of thumb when attacking a zone: compromise the integrity of the scheme by getting into the space in the middle of the floor and/or behind the defense. If a team has two bigs who can handle the ball and pass — which the Spurs do — a sound strategy is to put one of them around the free-throw line and another along the baseline in a high-low look. That way the player defending the middle of the floor, especially in the sort of 2-3 matchup zone the Mavs like to run, has to make a decision if and when the ball gets into the paint.

But it’s not like the Spurs did anything special on that last Duncan layup. It was a pretty basic pick and roll with Duncan diving to the basket. The Mavs — Dalembert, specifically — just did a bad job defending it. When Manu curled over to the left wing, Sammy D hedged out way too far.

Ginobili was not even close to attacking the rim at this point, nor was he in a good spot to pull up for a difficult mid-range jumper with 12 seconds on the shot clock. But by jumping out so far, Dalembert (in red) left a gigantic void in the middle of the paint and Duncan (yellow) recognized it. Timmy just strolled down the middle of the lane with only Vince Carter left to defend the back side of the roll, and Manu found him as he always does.

Mavs D

I don’t know why Dalembert decided it was a good idea leave the paint like he did. If he hangs back and Ginobili tries to penetrate from there, he’s got to deal with Dirk potentially helping from the corner — though in the new NBA you NEVER leave the shooter in the corner — and the long frame of Sammy D waiting to defend the rim.

Not to mention, if Dalembert doesn’t hedge like that, Duncan likely pops and spots up rather than rolling to the basket the way he did. And forget the fact he’s hitting only about a third of his mid-range jumpers, the top side of the zone would likely be in place to contest any shot if the ball was kick back to him.

But the Mavericks are in the bottom third of the NBA defensively for a reason. The zone caused issues initially, to be sure, and the Spurs didn’t help themselves at all by being so sloppy with the ball during those 90 seconds or so. But once they stopped the clock, they stopped the surge as well.

“We’re just playing,” Duncan said after the game. “We weren’t too worried about anything. We were still ahead at that point. We were just going to keep our composure and try to finish the game.”

You don’t see a ton of zone in the NBA, but Thursday night was an example of the effects it can have on an offense that has found its rhythm against a man-to-man defense. Alleys that had opened up wide in the fourth quarter had disappeared, and passes lanes that were available in the previous few minutes were closed off.

Zones can make for a tricky adjustment in a quick period of time, but in that minute and a half the Spurs acted like they’d never seen one before. But they bounced back after getting their heads on straight and avoided their first two-game losing streak of the season.

San Antonio is now one of just two remaining teams in the league — Portland being the other — without consecutive losses. The Christmas Day loss to the Rockets was a bad one, and it prompted Pop to offer some uncharacteristically harsh criticism of his team’s performance. The Spurs responded on the second night of a back-to-back and kept pace with the top tier of the West.

But Tony Parker struggled from the floor once again, and along with him, the starting lineup. The point guard did notch 23 points and got to the line 12 times, but something just doesn’t seem right at the moment. We’ll dive into all of this in the near future, but it’s something to keep an eye on for now.

Who knows, perhaps there’s just something to the ‘holiday hangover’ theory. I know I can attest to it, at least.

Screenshot courtesy of NBA.com.