How the Spurs have addressed the Zach Randolph problem

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Nightmares of Zach Randolph’s left hand haunted Spurs fans as Game 1 of the 2013 Western Conference Finals loomed. The last time these teams met in the postseason, everything that spun off his fingertips seemed to touch nothing but nylon, and the images were left repeating over and over again as folks re-watched San Antonio’s unceremonious 2011 elimination in their minds. But as the current matchup has begun to play out, those scenes from two seasons ago seem to have been removed from view.

Randolph has been mostly miserable through two games. He’s chipping in 8.5 points a night while shooting 26.7 percent — 7-for-26 from the floor — in the Western Conference Finals, a far cry from the 21.5 points per game on 50 percent shooting we saw in 2011. There are several factors involved in why that is, but it starts with the personnel the Spurs are currently employing. Duncan was a shell of himself two years ago and had trouble staying in front of Z-Bo when he faced up, the ancient Antonio McDyess and the undersized DeJuan Blair had similar sets of problems, and Tiago Splitter was buried at the end of Gregg Popovich’s bench, only to be dusted off once the situation reached DEFCON 1 going in to Game 6.

This time around, San Antonio has a healthier, lighter Duncan, a much more capable Splitter, Boris Diaw and a stable of young, long-armed perimeter players very adept at crashing down and helping defensively on big men. For as skilled as Randolph is offensively, the matchups he’s being faced with are difficult for him to handle. The 6-foot-9 Z-Bo now has the task of attacking two borderline 7-footers all night and, given his limited athleticism, doesn’t have enough of a quickness advantage to beat any of the Spurs’ bigs consistently off the dribble.

In 2011, this was an issue. Duncan’s ankle wasn’t right, and he was playing roughly 15 to 20 pounds heavier than he is now. McDyess just didn’t have the foot speed or strength any longer, and the Blair/Bonner combo was basically consumed alive by Randolph’s backside. Because of that, the Spurs were forced to give Z-Bo a good amount of space whenever he faced up so as not to leave themselves vulnerable to the dribble drive. Randolph took advantage of that.

Of the 96 shot attempts Z-Bo put during that 2011 playoff series, 28 of them were from the mid-range area. He only hit around 39.3 percent of those — which is right at the league average for mid-range jumpers — but it opened up the threat of the shot the Spurs had to respect. San Antonio wasn’t allowed to just hang back at the rim, and that made dealing with Randolph nearly impossible at the time.

But thus far during the Western Conference Finals, Z-Bo hasn’t been able to get anything going from outside of the paint. Only five of his 26 attempts have come from the mid-range, and he hasn’t hit a single one of them. In fact, of the paltry seven baskets he’s made during this series, just one has been converted from outside the restricted area.

The stark difference in shot charts — 2011 first round on the left, 2013 conference finals on right — is pretty wild.

 

Screen Shot 2013-05-24 at 11.36.44 AM

 

And the thing is, Randolph likes to use his mid-range game. It’s not as if the opportunities are there and he’s not taking advantage, the Spurs are just making completely forcing him out of comfortable situations. Z-Bo took 29.1 percent of his shots from outside the paint during the regular season, which is up 6.3 percent from the 2011 regular season. While Randolph’s biggest strength is rebounding and scoring inside, he has no problem letting the ball fly from 15 to 18 feet away.

The evidence is in the shot charts. The frequency with which he shot the ball in the paint changed very little over the last two years, but Randolph has obviously become more comfy with his shooting touch, at least when it comes to keeping it inside the arc.

 

Screen Shot 2013-05-24 at 11.50.06 AM

 

But Z-Bo’s struggles have a lot to do with his current competition. The Spurs realize who destroyed them in 2011, and they’ve game-planned to not let it happen again.

This from Dan McCarney at the San Antonio Express-News:

This underscores what many observers seemed to miss entering the series: A far cry from two seasons ago, when Tim Duncan was limping around on one leg and Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair were getting major minutes, the Spurs now have one of the better interior defenses in the NBA.

 

Not infallible, mind you. The Nuggets and Clippers, for example, had their way with the Spurs at times this season. But still among the best, ranking eighth in opposing points in the paint and third in opposing field-goal percentage at the rim. (In 2011, they were ranked 18th and fifth.)

 

According to Synergy Sports, Randolph is:

 

* 1 for 5 with two turnovers against Duncan
* 1 for 5 with one turnover against Splitter
* 1 for 3 against Diaw

 

Unlike in 2011, Randolph is now against a frontline that is not only longer than he is, but just about as quick. Couple that with the fact he has fewer capable 3-point shooters around him than he had then, and San Antonio has been able to swarm the post at every opportunity. They know Z-Bo is looking to score any time he touches the ball, so they’re just inviting him to kick it out to the arc.

But before he even gets the ball, the Spurs are being ultra-aggressive in denying him the chance to catch it in his spots. In this case, Diaw is fighting to maintain top-side position on Randolph, even all the way out to the free-throw line extended. And look at the other San Antonio defenders. Z-Bo has yet to even touch the ball, and they’re already in position to help over the top. When you’re fronting Randolph, you’d better have back-side help ready and waiting at all times.

 

Z-Bo-deny

 

Even when Randolph receives the ball away from the block and faces up, the Spurs are in their defensive spots early. Every defender has at least one foot in the paint, and the Grizzlies’ movement has virtually stopped.

 

Duncan-Z-Bo-face-up

 

Now, it must be pointed out: Randolph was hitting jumpers out of similar situations during the 2011 postseason. He was playing out of his mind, draining contested step-backs and fadeaway jumpers over the outstretched arms of San Antonio’s big men. There was virtually nothing they could do. But he hasn’t done any of that thus far, and the Spurs are content to pay him this sort of attention so long as he or his teammates aren’t knocking down perimeter shots.

As I mentioned before, Randolph has only five attempts outside of the paint compared to 21 shots inside the lane, and the Spurs are making sure that once he gets there his shots are viciously contested. Of course, it doesn’t help that the Grizzlies’ floor-spacing has been terrible at times during the series, which comes with the territory when you have only a few perimeter threats.

The Spurs are collapsing on Randolph the second he begins his drive, and as a result have given up only a couple of decent looks through two games. Notice where three of the four remaining Grizzlies on the floor are positioned.

 

Contest-Z-BO

 

It’s not to say the Spurs didn’t respect Randolph in 2011, they’re just playing an extreme form of interior defense this season. They’re now well-aware of the kind of damage he can do. Take a look back to 2011, and you’ll see where Randolph was getting his shots. In this screen grab, Z-Bo was isolated in the post against McDyess. San Antonio — a team that typically prided itself on not double-teaming — did not give their man enough help on the baseline or on Randolph’s right shoulder. The result is disastrous. If he gets this type of position on virtually anybody, it’s over.

Notice the yellow line. Not a single Spur is even on the same plane as Randolph.

(I apologize for the grainy photos here. The arrow is pointing to Randolph with the ball in his hands.)

 Z-Bo-low

 

And even when he didn’t get below the Spurs’ defense, he was still able to get to his left hand going toward the middle just about whenever he wanted. Granted, that has a lot to do with the amount of space he was receiving when he had the ball. Look at the shooters in the following picture in comparison to the ones you’ll see starting for Memphis in the conference finals. As Randolph goes up with his left hand, notice where the rest of the Spurs defenders are. When you’re dealing with Shane Battier, O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley (Battier and Mayo were not starters in 2011, for whatever that’s worth), as San Antonio is here, they must be respected. There’s a much different dynamic involved when Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen make up 40 percent of your starting lineup, because teams can afford to leave them on the perimeter.

But here, the lane is open for Randolph to make his move, and San Antonio just wasn’t bringing enough help. In this instance, Z-Bo put his body into the defender and elevated, giving McDyess practically zero chance to block his shot. And without any help to speak of, he had all the space he needed to hit an easy hook shot.

 

left-hand

Remember, Randolph is also one of the best in the league on the offensive glass. He’s just as much a threat in terms of second-chance points as he is in the initial offense. The swarming style of defense not only makes it difficult for him to get a good look on his original shot, but it also makes it much more difficult to attack the offensive glass. If Z-Bo is in a 1-on-1 situation when the ball goes up, it’s very difficult to box him out even if he misses the shot. Now, with Leonard, Green and the rest of the Spurs’ backcourt crashing down to help, it’s negating a lot of the things that make Randolph so dangerous.

 It’s safe to say the Spurs have learned from their mistakes of two years ago, but what’s hurting Memphis most of all is their lack of outside shooting. Without the proper pressure valves on the perimeter, Randolph will be faced with crowds for the rest of the series. And barring a wild swing in Lionel Hollins’ rotation, it’s an issue they’ll have to deal with going forward. Perhaps we’ll see a little more Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless in Game 3, but Prince and Allen represent the defensive mentality this team hangs its hat on.

The Grizzlies just don’t have enough two-way players, something the Spurs certainly have. Not only are Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green very good defenders, they can also be lethal from the 3-point line. Memphis is forced to go one way or the other. On one hand, Prince and Allen are the team’s best perimeter defenders, but you can’t count on either one to hit a shot. Because of that, Randolph will be swarmed every time he chooses to attack. On the other hand, while Pondexter and Bayless can spread the floor and hit shots, their individual defense leaves the Grizzlies susceptible to the offensive onslaughts that make the Spurs so dangerous.

At this time of the season, every decision, every move, every adjustment is crucial, and Memphis is currently faced with a scenario in which they must make some sort of change. They must figure out a way to inject much-needed perimeter shooting on a regular basis, otherwise this thing will be over quickly. The question is, will they sacrifice some of their vaunted defensive presence to do so?

Regardless, if Randolph doesn’t get going, it’s all a moot point anyway.

Stats and screenshots courtesy of mySynergySports.com and NBA.com/stats.

  • STIJL

    I’m sure Lionel is going to instruct to look for the perimeter opportunity if Z-Bo is double and triple teamed. That said…look for personnel adjustment from Memphis for when Randolph is on the court to complement better percentages from the three point/perimeter area. If San Antonio commits to overwhelming Randolph, Hollins must implement his best perimeter shooters in the game the same time Randolph is playing.

  • Colin

    I mentioned before that he would play more perimeter oriented players to get more shots up. More shots=more offensive rebound opportunities, that way Randolph won’t have to rely on offensive sets or entry passes to get the ball.

  • Televator

    But Randolph will have at least two defenders who rebound decently stuck to him, making offensive boards much more difficult than he’s used to. And he’s a bit rattled this year–not playing like himself and missing easy put-backs. They need to come up with a VERY clever plan besides just chucking up a bunch of 3s that have a low% chance of dropping. Seems to me their best bet is going to be some kind of defensive magic to keep our shooters from getting hot. Oh wait–we have a LOT of long range shooters, including pretty much the whole team besides Splitter and Timmy.

    Spurs in 5, but I think a sweep is possible with this extra day of rest.

  • TunaDM

    Extraordinarily written article! It’s great to see the logistics of a fantastic NBA defense! I also enjoyed the praise of Green and Leonard at the end of the article. Even Splitter and “Red Mamba” Bonner have been pivotal in this series. Go Spurs Go!

  • leben

    More than just a first-round bye, the Lakers series has proven to be the perfect petri dish to establish the elements that have proved pivotal in defending a team with two good bigs but lacking in consistent perimeter shooters.

  • Colin

    A little presumptuous from you, its game 3. Just see how it plays out. Randolph is a great player and is due to have a good game soon.

  • Bob

    Splitter is still 7 feet tall. The only difference is Pop is smart enough to use him now.

  • Bob

    I’m expecting to see more Z-Bo on the low block with Pondexter in the corner, or even Isos on the side with Pondexter at the top of the key. Basically, put Z-Bo in positions where the only guy who can feasibly double him is the guy who’s guarding Pondexter on the perimeter.

  • STIJL

    Almost worked. Then Spurs basketball took over. Thankfully.

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