Stopping the unstoppable: How the Spurs are defending LeBron James

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MIAMI — Defending the Miami Heat involves a strategy of concessions. You can’t stop everything they throw at you offensively; you must pick and choose the valve to shut off. In Game 1, the Spurs took perhaps the riskiest route, and for one night it paid off.

San Antonio’s game plan was an interesting one: do everything possible to prevent the best player in the world from scoring. If the rest of the Heat were to beat the Spurs, then so be it. At least they could live with it if Miami hit a bunch of threes. After all, that’s better than being beaten at the rim. Still, it’s a strategy that involves maximum effort. Collapsing on James in the paint means having to recover to shooters all night, but the Spurs have never been averse to hard work.

Starting at the point of attack, Kawhi Leonard was brilliant in defending James. His length, strength and acquired corporate knowledge were all on display, and he made life easy on help defenders by forming an adhesive to LeBron’s hip. But he needed help, as he will throughout the rest of this series. Everyone needs assistance when defending Miami’s wrecking ball.

The Spurs’ defense has been great when it’s been able to set up in the half court. As Manu Ginobili said following the first game, San Antonio got Miami to play 5-on-5, meaning they didn’t give them many fast-break opportunities off of turnovers. The Heat rarely outnumbered Spurs defenders in any situation, and that was key. Even in semi-transition, where James is lethal, San Antonio was prepared. The paint was protected at all times.

 

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James is one of the best passers and facilitators in NBA history, but his initial instinct is to attack the rim. As you can see, the Spurs accounted for this aspect of his game first and foremost. But it certainly doesn’t stop there. LeBron knows when to attack and probe, and he knows when to reset and run the offense. Like San Antonio, much of what the Heat do offensively revolves around the pick and roll, but it’s not typically of the traditional variety.

Miami likes to use its point guards as screeners for James and Dwyane Wade, forcing mismatches with smaller players. It’s difficult enough guarding James with a similarly sized athlete, so defending him with a player seven inches shorter and 75 pounds lighter is a virtually impossible task. The one drawback of using a point guard to set screens instead of a big man is it’s generally easier to fight through the screen, especially if the guy being picked is Leonard’s size. The Spurs’ wings did a good job sticking with James in Game 1, but the help defense did an even better job of reacting out of the pick-and-rolls the Heat threw at them.

In this situation, Miami did use a big man to set the pick, which forced Tim Duncan to match up with James. Duncan doesn’t follow Bosh to the top of the key, opting to hang back in the paint in anticipation of LeBron attacking the rim, which he does. The Spurs were ready for James all night. Bosh isn’t helping matters here by basically rolling right toward the dribble action, but San Antonio did a good job of forming defensive pockets around James when he attacked.

 

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At times it even seemed like the Spurs would run a sort of matchup zone, especially when James would get mismatched on anyone other than Leonard or Danny Green. Those two are basically the only ones capable of sticking with him to any extent, so when a big man drew the defensive assignment of guarding LeBron for whatever reason, San Antonio showed a willingness to employ a zone. It didn’t happen more than a handful of times, at most, but that is a wrinkle to watch for going forward.

More typically, though, the Spurs had all hands on deck in defending James, even if it meant laying off their own man. But what San Antonio defenders did effectively was stay in between the player they were guarding and James as much as possible. He’s going to find the open man, regardless, but it’s important to at least break up his line of sight. It’s all about making life as difficult as possible for the MVP, and that starts with making him think twice about attempting to penetrate.

Early in this possession, the Spurs essentially showed their hand as James initiated a pick-and-roll situation with Chris Andersen. “Birdman” actually slips this screen, and the Heat go on to spread the floor on both sides of James. A lot of that has to do with the way San Antonio’s initial defense was set up. They refused to let James get a head of steam in any direction, and at times they prevented him from even thinking about it. Every defender is no more than a step away from the paint, and the combination of Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw have essentially formed a wall at the top of the key.

 

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San Antonio gave Miami a look at how they’re going to play defense in this series. And though they will certainly make a few changes, their strategy likely won’t be very much different. The Spurs aren’t going to let James kill them in the paint, and generally speaking that seems like a sound strategy.

On the other side of things, expect to see Erik Spoelstra make adjustments going forward, and expect James to mix things up as well. But if Wade and Bosh do not play bigger than they did in Game 1, the Heat will be in trouble. San Antonio’s defense is one of the best in the league for a reason, and it would be a shock if the performance of one player, however impressive, beats them down over the course of a best-of-seven series. If James doesn’t get more help, this Finals could end more quickly than originally anticipated.

The Spurs have issued the challenge, now it’s up to James’ sidekicks to help him answer the call. San Antonio will not let him do it alone.

Screenshots courtesy of mySynergySports.com.


  • STIJL

    It’s basically what Oklahoma did last year against the Spurs. Focus and stop the most lethal talent on the team in getting easy looks and challenge the rest of their team to make good on open looks if kicked out. It’s one thing to shoot well and play well when your team leader is having a good game. Different story when the reliability factor is upped when your star is being shut down or out of their comfort range.

    Here’s to hoping the Heat players can’t respond in a beneficial way if LeBron is being the focus of the Spurs defense.

  • Rafael

    Isn`t funny how, after six years from Spurs-Cavs finals, and after everything that happened and Lebron movement to Miami, that this finals is decided again on how to stop Lebron? What have changed?