How the Spurs’ defense has taken control of the series
By the end of Game 1 in the Western Conference Semifinals between the Spurs and Warriors, Steph Curry had people thinking Golden State had a real shot at upsetting the now-highest seed remaining team in the NBA playoffs. After Game 2, Klay Thompson had people downright changing their picks.
And it was certainly an understandable sentiment at the time. Young legs versus worn bodies. Explosive individual scoring versus systematic execution. A new basketball storyline versus one that just won’t go away. It gave way to all the makings of a newly formed national bandwagon and all the hyperbole that comes along with it.
Mark Jackson said he had the best-shooting backcourt in league history, and he challenged the doubters to call his bluff. But a few days later it was “the hand of God” that would save his team, not its two best players.
After watching Dubs 3-pointers scorch the nets through the first two games, nobody would have chastised those who converted to the belief of divine intervention. In fact, it seemed like the only possible logic. Even if there had been better 3-point-shooting teammates in league history, nobody had any real evidence based on what they’d just seen.
After all, shots like this one were going in…
Also this one…
But San Antonio didn’t budge; it believed in the science of its own system. The Spurs kept using terms like “trust” and phrases such as “buy-in” to reinforce their own beliefs in what it is they do. And what they do — what they’ve done all season — is make life difficult for the opponent’s offense just as they do its defense.
Thompson’s 29 points in the first half of Game 2 were as mesmerizing as any you’ll see in a 24-minute span. Every time he stopped and popped the ball found nothing but the net, and before the Spurs could absorb the barrage that befell them, they were in their own locker room facing a 19-point deficit.
But ever since they walked back on the court for that second half, things have been different.
The Warriors’ starting backcourt duo scored 105 points in the first 82 minutes of the series. That’s a little better than 1.28 points per minute played between the two, which is, um, good. But in the 173 minutes played since halftime of Game 2, Curry and Thompson have combined to score just 92 points — a clip of just .53 points per minute. Much of that has to do with the fact that their early series pace was unsustainable, but the Spurs’ perimeter defense certainly had something to do with it as well.
Curry — the head of the Golden State snake, as Tony Parker said — was the one who had to be stopped, or at least slowed down. He’s the one who opened it up for everyone else. His ability caused the Spurs to mismatch defensively, putting bigger defenders in his way to dissuade him from stopping and shooting over the top. But that put an unbelievable amount of pressure on Parker to guard the big Golden State wings, something that’s been a nightmare for San Antonio.
The Spurs have worked around that a bit, however, running Parker in shorter-than-normal bursts rather than prolonged stretches, and minimizing his shared court time with Thompson and Harrison Barnes as much as possible. It has prevented, to some degree, all the isolation sets the Warriors were torturing Parker with play after play after play.
And while San Antonio’s adjustments haven’t exactly been groundbreaking, they’ve been effective, especially with a hobbled Curry. They’ve run a number of different defenders at him so that he rarely feels comfortable, and have only used Kawhi Leonard in emergency situations. (After Game 2, the Spurs essentially glued Leonard to Thompson, and Klay hasn’t been the same since.)
It would be insulting to the Spurs to insinuate they weren’t ready for Steph’s 3-point-shooting brilliance, as there is arguably no team more prepared for its opponent on a nightly basis than the one dressed in silver and black. But there isn’t necessarily a gameplan for what Curry did in Game 1. When you can’t miss, you can’t be guarded.
The Spurs didn’t crowd him to the extent they likely should have, but much of that has to do with Curry’s style defying general offensive concepts, which flies in the face of San Antonio’s defensive strategies.
One of Gregg Popovich’s coaching staples is the premium he places on transition defense. The Spurs as a team are below average in terms of athleticism, so turning and running back downcourt to defend their own rim is a more important practice than most anything in the San Antonio system. And they know how crucial it is against a team that runs like the Warriors do. But Golden State is built on exploiting the Spurs’ instincts to get back, which is why this matchup has been so problematic.
The Warriors don’t want to attack the rim in transition. They want to stop and shoot before the defense has even turned around.
Take this screengrab from early in Game 1. The Spurs were able to get every player back defensively before the ball caught up with them, but when you’re defending Curry in transition that doesn’t always matter. This shot came after a steal on the Warriors defensive end, and not four seconds had run off the shot clock before Steph was launching. Notice that Boris Diaw and Kawhi Leonard had yet to even turn their heads.
In this instance, Danny Green had barely gotten the chance to react by the time Curry’s feet were set. If he’s shooting in any more space than what a phone booth offers, you might as well let him use a cell because he’ll dial it up from anywhere. But by the time Game 3 rolled around, the Spurs had nipped this issue in the bud for the most part. By Game 5, it was all but eliminated.
Here’s another shot of Golden State getting out in transition. San Antonio had partially done its job by getting enough bodies back to match up, but until Curry is cut off, the initial defensive process is not complete. The Spurs take care of business here, altering his path as soon as he crosses half-court. Just a few steps earlier, Curry had been in a near-full sprint.
San Antonio has made a concerted effort to eliminate the quick, open looks from distance, and it’s made a world of difference. When you force the Warriors to run their isolation-heavy half-court sets rather than spot up on the fast-break, you’ve done a large part of your job.
But Curry is capable of shooting from almost any situation imaginable, as I wrote here a couple of weeks ago. Some of them are indefensible, though. We’ve seen him pick up a ball that was rolling on the ground 22 feet from the basket and drain a jumper with Parker right in his face. We’ve seen Bogut fumble the ball in the corner, only to have Curry slide sideways, corral it and chuck it while falling backwards. He can literally shoot from anywhere, so it’s necessary to never suffer a lapse in concentration when defending him.
The pick-and-roll is another scenario in which he’s very comfortable shooting off the dribble. One of the tenets of defending the oldest play in basketball is going over the top of the screen when defending a great shooter. If you go under, the man you’re guarding has all the space in the world to get his shot up. But by fighting over the pick you’re at least making your presence felt as the shooter searches for his comfort zone. Many great marksmen over the years have been affected by a defender staying in their hip pocket, even if they’ve received a great screen from a teammate.
But not Curry. If you’re not hanging on his right arm, if he’s got a clear view of the basket, he’s open. And his shooting motion is such that he can put up an effortless shot a fraction of a second after picking up his dribble. It’s one of the reasons he’s so dangerous: the ball can go from the floor to his shot release in about the time it takes you to blink, especially if you’re a really slow blinker.
This is problematic for a San Antonio defense that focuses so much on not just eliminating the 3-point shot, but defending the rim as well. Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter are not the fleetest of foot, so they’re very reluctant to stretch themselves out to the arc to defend long-distance shots. They typically invite mid-range looks — as they’re the most inefficient shots in basketball — by sagging in the paint, but they can’t afford to do that against this team.
In Game 1, the Spurs learned the hard way that they’d have to fight against their instincts. When Curry got into pick-and-roll situations, Duncan basically dared him to shoot. And that was not going to be a problem for the Dubs’ point guard.
The laws of basketball call for the protection of the rim over the defense of the 3-point line, so Duncan is doing the right thing, historically speaking, especially given his physical limitations. But the Warriors defy these rules, in a sense. When you play Golden State, it’s almost as if the order of operations are reversed. Guard against the 3, then fall back and get to the rim. San Antonio is obviously smart enough to recognize this and react accordingly, even if it is against the typical philosophy.
While overextending compromises rim protection, it’s a line that’s necessary for the Spurs to toe.
The return of Splitter has made this practice easier to employ for San Antonio. Not only is he more mobile than Duncan, he’s also a very capable interior defender if Timmy gets left on an island on the perimeter. But the Spurs still lack an ideal defensive big that’s athletic enough to cover and hedge on the ball-handler out of the pick-and-roll, so they must make do. The Warriors are hardly the best in the league when it comes to attacking the rim, so the Spurs will take their chances despite Curry’s elite passing ability.
Obviously, the Golden State attack is much more than just Curry, but he spearheads it. The injury to his ankle has left him less explosive and nimble than we saw him through the majority of the first three games, but he can still torch you from deep if he gets his looks. If anything, his hindered mobility places even more importance on San Antonio’s perimeter defense. They must make him test his lower extremities by putting the ball on the floor rather than positioning it in his shooting hand.
Because when Curry puts the ball in the air, nobody on the defense takes a breath.
Screenshots courtesy of mySynergySports.com.