Out of the Timeout: The plays that flipped Game 1 on its head

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Manu Ginobili’s late third-quarter surge flipped the game upside down, but it was a pair of 3-pointers that broke the back of the Lakers at the AT&T Center on Sunday.

The Spurs struggled to score all afternoon, and all month long, for that matter. Shooting 37 percent from the floor doesn’t win a ton of playoff games, historically, but the way San Antonio played defense reflected the blueprints of past champions. Without Kobe Bryant on the floor, the Los Angeles attack is limited. Talented, but limited. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are as good as it gets as a post tandem, but without their All-World shooting guard, the two are restricted by their current surroundings.

Still, when you you shoot as poorly as the Spurs did in Game 1, even an offensively strapped team can hang around. That’s a dangerous situation for a favored, higher seed. But as Tony Parker said at Monday’s practice, the looks his team found weren’t bad at all.

“Offensively, we had a lot of great shots. Shots that we used to make, so I’m not really worried about the offense,” he said. “I’m more worried about the offense, I’m more worried about, at the defensive end, if we can play the same game. Because the whole month of April, we were not that good on defense.”

The defense has already been a point of emphasis with Gregg Popovich and Co., but the offense has also been a work in progress since Parker’s original injury on March 1. The Spurs have been giving the “We are what we are” line, though, explaining they haven’t exactly forgotten how to run this system. Sunday’s game was an example of that.

Even as shots weren’t falling, San Antonio still ran some of its sets beautifully. None more so than on the two consecutive 3-pointers from Danny Green and Matt Bonner in the closing minutes.

The first play in this sequence was prototypical Spurs. A corner three for for Green, one of the NBA’s best spot-up shooters. As I wrote about over at HoopChalk, San Antonio has used a pin-down screen for Duncan in big moments this season. This play is a variation of a previous set, where one big man (Bonner in this case) flashes to the top to form a high-low with Duncan. Two guards then flatten out toward the corners to maximize space from one 3-point-line break to the other, as another perimeter player drops the ball off at the top of the key before setting the screen for Duncan.

 

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Green then acts as if he’s flashing through the lane to make himself available for the pass, only to break it off to set a pick on Pau Gasol. Green starts his move toward the center of the court to set up his man on the low side of the impending screen, not on top, where Antawn Jamison could help out on Timmy’s shot. And don’t be fooled by the little supposed meaningless gestures, like Green’s hand wave, within this offense. It’s all part of the choreography. As you’ll see in the video at the bottom of the page, once Duncan pops off the screen Green sets, he swings his arms as if he’s moving into his shooting motion. These little movements in an NBA game shouldn’t be dismissed as fluky, especially from the craftiest of veterans. Nearly everything the Spurs do is predetermined to maximize the effectiveness of their execution. It’s a dance. One they’ve had practice perfecting.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s Green setting the screen to free Duncan for what the Spurs are disguising as a play designed to get the big man an open jumper.

 

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Duncan gets to the elbow and receives the pass, already in attack-mode. At this point, Parker is in the near corner while Ginobili waits on the opposite side. Bonner starts his move toward Manu, where he’ll set a screen to set Ginobili up as another option on the wing if needed (we’ll get to this shortly). But the primary action at this point has become a hand-off pick and roll between Duncan and his point guard, Parker, who had been playing possum.

 

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With Nash — a man who recently received an epidural — defending him, Parker bursts toward Duncan to receive the hand-off. By the time he receives it, Nash is done, and Gasol is forced to fall back in the paint to keep Parker away from the basket. That is quite an undesirable matchup for the Lakers. It means Nash will have to potentially stay with Duncan, prompting possible help from Jamison, who is guarding Green on his way to the corner.

 

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So basically, the entire Los Angeles team collapsed on the point guard, a reaction Parker has evoked from countless teams throughout his career. All five Lakers have at least one foot in the paint and Parker finds the right man, which is also something he generally does.

 

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When Green gets an open look, he’s deadly. As Tom Haberstroh wrote recently, when he’s left alone, the Spurs’ shooting guard connects on 56 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. (ESPN Insider required for link.)

 

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Here is the video of the play in its entirety.

 

 

As I noted earlier, the Spurs always have more than one or two options out of this set and ones similar to it. San Antonio gave Los Angeles a variation of the same look just a half minute later, in fact. Then they flipped the script.

Following a steal in the backcourt from Green, the Spurs once again got the ball to Duncan at the elbow, but this time he went the other direction. Just as he had in the previous clip, Bonner sets a screen for Ginobili as Duncan pivots toward them.

 

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My guess is, somewhere along the way, Duncan’s thought process was, “Would I rather run a pick and roll with Danny or …… I’ll go the other way.” And when the opposite-side guard is Manu, you’ve probably made a good decision. Once Ginobili receives the hand-off screen from Duncan, the Los Angeles defense has quite the predicament. Duncan’s pick completely wipes Jamison out of the play and Gasol is left to contend with Ginobili on top and a rolling Duncan at the elbow. Howard has no choice but to step in toward the paint to help in case Manu drops it off to Timmy. All Bonner has to do is spot up.

 

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Again, a Spurs guard makes a brilliant pass to an open shooter. And when Bonner is that guy, there’s a pretty good chance the ball won’t even hit the rim on its way through the net.

 

 

It’s just more evidence of how the Spurs can kill you in so many different ways, even out of familiar sets. In fact, oftentimes the defense has already seen the look. But San Antonio counters the knowledge the opposition has gained by using it against them from a different angle. It’s why, even when shots haven’t been falling and the offense has been lagging, they’ll almost always find ways to continue to get open looks. If they hit them, you’re dead.

In this case, the two threes turned a 10-point game into a 16-point affair in less than a minute. Four minutes later, the Spurs walked to the locker room up 1-0 in the best-of-seven first-round series. And they didn’t even play that well.

The other thing is, despite their strengths, if you stretch the Lakers’ bigs out toward the perimeter defensively it creates major problems for them. It’s one reason why an effective Matt Bonner could be devastating for Los Angeles, which is a bit funny in itself. If they do continue to struggle defending the Spurs from outside, Game 2 might not even be this close.

As these two plays exemplified, San Antonio can change any game in quite a hurry.

 

Images and videos courtesy of NBA.com.

 


  • Tyler

    Nice breakdown. The Spurs have really pioneered (and perfected) the ball hand-off/speed PnR, a play nearly every team runs now. When TP and Manu are healthy, SA can be lethal in its execution.

    Also, for such a gifted athlete, Howard’s help defense on the perimeter is pretty lazy. Sure, he blocks and changes a ton of shots in the paint, but he’s often waaaay too slow and late in his help, leaving his team out to dry. If he wasn’t such a good athlete, how good would he really be defensively??

    Howard also doesn’t open his mouth on defense, something you cannot have from your defensive anchor. Take the last snapshot above – Howard should be up the lane and physical with the rolling TD, while also yelling at Jamison to stay with Bonner. Instead, he’s silent and late out to Bonner, giving up an open 3 and putting a nail in his team’s coffin.

    And if that’s what you’re going to get from your best player: lazy, selfish, and not locked in, you’re in trouble.

  • Andrew G

    I can’t disagree, but a lot of it is coaching. D’Antoni doesn’t tell them how to play good defense (if any at all); I think the fundamentals are there for Dwight, but lack of proper coaching is only going to inhibit his development and lead to these laughable breakdowns time and again.

  • Tyler

    I agree to an extent, but there is a difference between playing without a coherent gameplan, and not playing with a sense of urgency. I just don’t see that win-at-all-cost mentality in Howard that you find in all the greats.

  • Scientist1987

    There is a huge difference in accuracy for Bonnner, Green and Leonard when the ball is delivered to them from inside the paint vs. being passed along the perimeter.
    If during the catch the rim never leaves their field of view, they to not have to “reacquire” their orientation relative to the court. Looking down for a bounce pass or “breaking lock” for a pass that is two feet off the mark has the same result.
    As you watch the playoffs, try to guess in advance whether a 3 point shot is going in based on the pass and shooter’s body position. It is surprising how often you can predict when the great shooters are going to make it.

  • neverthehero

    Here’s what I know. Howard was either taught some D by Stan Van Gundy or he wasn’t. If he was sure as hell didn’t lose all that knowledge in one season, same goes for all the other Lakers, outside of Steve Nash who else wasn’t coached by the legendary Phil Jackson or Gundy? Everybody on that Laker team knows D except for Nash. They just don’t have the personal

  • andy

    WINTER SHOOOOOOOOS