San Antonio Spurs 104, Toronto Raptors 95: The Raptors were in the zone, and then they weren’t
AT&T CENTER — Excluding a blistering 10-0 start, the San Antonio Spurs started the second half of their season with one of the worst halves of basketball this year before reality, and a dose of Manu Ginobili and DeJuan Blair, kicked in to set things straight.
At the heart of the Spurs troubles in the opening half were a combination of sloppy execution and an active Toronto Raptors zone defense. I struggle to recall a team so blatantly playing a straight zone defense for such a long stretch, as the Raptors did through pretty much the entire second quarter. But such is the life of an NBA team forced to play defensive turnstiles Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani together for 35-plus minutes.
The lone effective practitioner of the zone as a base defense, the Dallas Mavericks, get away with it by disguising it with different looks in man-to-man defensive principles. The Raptors game plan was to stay exclusively in a zone, and for a half it worked to perfection.
“We missed a lot of open shots and were a little passive,” San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “We didn’t attack aggressively against that kind of zone, so we kind of helped them.”
Against the zone defense, the Spurs attempted all of six 3-pointers in the first half — something Ginobili has been able to knock out by himself on many occasions this season. Tentative shooters wasted any initial penetration, with George Hill and Gary Neal guilty of passing up shots in favor of fruitless drives back into the heart of the Raptors defense. Over-passing and generally poor decisions led to 12 first-half turnovers (the Spurs had 17 overall) and 15 of Toronto’s 22 fast break points.
In the second half, the Spurs attacked the zone by swinging the ball around and going straight into pick-and-rolls, with Blair finding seams in the gaps for a season-high 22 points. They also adjusted by moving a 1-of-5 George Hill out of the corners and involving him in dribble handoffs and other two man games with Antonio McDyess, getting the third year guard out of spot up situations and a few cuts to the basket. Hill scored 10 points in the second half on 3-of-4 shooting.
Once the Spurs managed to break through the zone a few times, the turnovers — and the Raptors easy baskets — came to a screeching halt, as did any chance of an upset. A few more thoughts in bullet form on game no. 42:
- It’s gotta be the shoes: Dunks have been a rare commodity along the Spurs frontline this season. So rare have the opportunities come that when they actually present themselves, the finished product has been a little awkward (see Splitter, Tiago). So when McDyess soared for two vintage dunks in the game (in a pair of Air Jordans no less), his teammates took notice.
“Timmy asked if I was retiring tonight because I had two dunks,” McDyess joked. “I’m going to feel it in the morning.”In his retirement tour, McDyess is quietly experiencing the customary San Antonio second year surge, putting up an efficient 8 points and 6 rebounds tonight on 4-0f-7 shooting. What probably won’t be forgotten come film session is that McDyess could’ve had a hat trick, blowing an easy dunk opportunity at the end of the first half.
- In search of perfection: Many of DeJuan Blair’s troubles this season, if you ask Head Coach Gregg Popovich, stemmed from the second year forward abandoning his greatest strength, his instincts, in search of a perfect game. “DeJuan, he’s too worried about being perfect, about where to be on the court instead of just competing and playing,” Popovich said. “I thought in the third quarter he just went out and had fun and played basketball, he did a great job for us.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Blair thrived against a zone, a defense for which there are no real set plays and players instead rely on sound principles and good instincts. Having Ginobili zipping you pinpoint passes (seven assists) never hurts either. Also, Blair hit a midrange jumper, which is noteworthy in itself.