The Spurs can bounce back, but they’d better do it now
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SAN ANTONIO — It was a new defensive wrinkle installed by Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle that flummoxed the Spurs in Game 1 before they finally ironed it out midway through the fourth quarter. That same wrinkle was back in the fold on Wednesday, only this time San Antonio was overwhelmed in a 113-92 Game 2 shellacking.
With the Spurs down by 14 points late in the third quarter, DeJuan Blair picked the pocket of Manu Ginobili and lumbered coast-to-coast for an awkward layup, then ran back down the court with a big grin on his face. Turned out to be that kind of night, when even Ginobili, whose 27 points on 12 shots kept the Spurs on life support throughout the night, found ways to cough up extra opportunities to a Dallas team that apparently hadn’t read the headlines.
They weren’t supposed to be here, tied 1-1 in their opening-round series against San Antonio. Dallas’ porous defense had no chance of slowing one of the league’s best offenses. The Spurs were going to get in the paint and rain threes at will on the Mavs.
You’ve surely read, heard or talked about the ‘switching’ scheme Dallas has employed to start the series by now, and consequently how San Antonio has failed to beat it. It was a game plan for which the Spurs were not prepared, from both a coaching and player standpoint. But there was a different culprit on Wednesday, one that didn’t necessarily manifest itself as a result of that Mavericks defense.
San Antonio committed 24 turnovers in Game 2, the second-most they’ve coughed up in a postseason game since 1986, and the most since giving it away 25 times against the Suns in the opening round of the 2003 playoffs. Oh, and the Spurs won a title that year.
“That’s something that’s hurt us all year long. When we’ve had games like that we have been *unsuccessful,” Gregg Popovich said after the game. “Tonight was 24 turnovers and I think it was 33 points (off turnovers). That’s been a weak link for us throughout the year when we have lost a game and that showed up tonight.”
*Interestingly enough, the Spurs are now 28-10 this season when committing more than 15 turnovers — they averaged 14.4 per contest through the first 82 games — but those 24 giveaways on Wednesday was a 2013-14 high.
Considering the level of discomfort Dallas has caused San Antonio through the first two games of the series, the Spurs were pretty damn successful when they actually got a shot up in the air. They shot 50 percent from the floor and hit 10 of their 20 3-point attempts, higher than their season averages in both capacities.
From an Xs and Os standpoint, San Antonio handled the Mavs’ defense relatively well. You know … other than the whole “we’re just going to give you the ball 24 extra times if that’s OK” part. Tony Parker was knocking down the mid-range jumper early, which isn’t ideal but it’s what he’s going to have to do if he’s constantly defended by Dallas big men sagging in the paint. Tim Duncan went 4-of-5 from the floor, but he just didn’t get the ball in desirable positions often enough. The Spurs did a better job of keeping the ball and bodies moving on the wings to create more separation, but there were far too many bad passes, clumsy dribbles and uncharacteristic hesitations.
And despite all this, San Antonio’s starting unit of Duncan, Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter has an impressive net rating of 17.8 points per 100 possessions through the first two games. And, just as it happened in Game 1, the Spurs were solid early on Wednesday, but that leads us to the biggest offensive problems beyond the 24 turnovers: Ginobili not included, the bench has been a disaster.
Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw, three major cogs in the ‘Foreign Legion’ bench crew, are killing the Spurs when they’re on the floor. San Antonio is an atrocious 75.4 points per 100 possessions worse than the Mavs in Games 1 and 2 when those three are on the court, and it’s been hugely damaging. This was the strongest bench in the league during the regular season after being slightly revamped over the summer in order to provide more depth and support for the Big Three. But Popovich has pulled two consecutive early second-quarter line changes like the surface they’re playing on is made of ice rather than hardwood.
If that second group was better defensively than it is, offensive lulls wouldn’t be all that catastrophic. But that isn’t the case. They’ve relied on whipping the ball around and making shot after shot to effectively pull away from the opposing bench on a regular basis; now, they’re not just missing offensive opportunities, they’re getting absolutely smoked on defense.
The Foreign Legion (Manu included) has surrendered a defensive-efficiency rating of 167.6 in nearly 10 minutes of court time together per game through the first two contests of the postseason. And keep in mind, the Mavericks scored only 85 points in Game 1, so that wild number isn’t only a result of Dallas’ offensive showing on Wednesday. That same group gave up 153.3 points per 100 possessions on Sunday.
Still, the last thing we expected going in was for the bench’s offense to suffer the way it has. It helps when shots go in because it gives the Spurs a chance to get back and set up on defense, and clearly it’s beneficial to not turn the ball over a trillion times. Even with all the talk of the Mavs’ defense (and rightfully so, as it’s been very good), the shots are there.
Mills is getting the looks he normally does off high pick-and-rolls, because switching on the Spurs’ backup point guard around the 3-point line is essentially like going under the screen. He’s pulled up and hit those shots all season long, now he’s got to do it on the postseason stage. As Popovich has often said, sometimes it’s as simple as hitting shots.
Then there’s the wing trio of Leonard, Green and Belinelli. Again, Dallas’ scheme has surprised San Antonio and worked very well, but this isn’t exactly rocket science. The Mavs’ two starting guards, José Calderón and Monta Ellis, are being planted away from Parker and Mills on every single defensive possession. They literally have one job: don’t leave your man at the 3-point line. They aren’t being sucked in by dribble penetrations, largely because of those defensive switches, and they’re guarding the Spurs on the court who are more dependent on others creating for them rather than the initiators of the offense themselves.
Calderón and Ellis are both minus defenders, so Carlisle is making the game plan as simplistic as possible for them. He’s not allowing them to deal with on-ball pressure of San Antonio’s point guards — only Shawn Marion and Devin Harris are consistently drawing the assignments of Parker and Mills — and he’s alleviating their concerns of help responsibility by basically eliminating spot-up chances from the Spurs’ wing players. If Tony Parker beats his man one-on-one, so be it. If Duncan has a successful post-up, fine by us. No open threes allowed.
Through the first two games, San Antonio has allowed Dallas to get too comfortable playing this way — falling into the trap, so to speak. The Spurs’ post-up and isolation attempt numbers have spiked significantly, and their spot-up chances have dropped just as dramatically. The offense is out of sorts, and because of it, Carlisle’s group is playing with an extreme level of comfort and confidence.
Not only is the scheme preventing the Spurs from scoring, it’s allowing the Mavericks to sort of coast — not from a mental or focus standpoint, but from a physical-exertion perspective. Running through screens and around pick-and-rolls is a hell of a lot more exhausting than passing your man off to the guy next to you or simply staying attached to a standstill shooter. San Antonio’s got to make them work harder and not allow itself to get caught slowing down its half-court pace.
And the Spurs must keep doing what they do best: pick-and-roll, pick-and-roll, pick-and-roll. Ginobili mentioned after the game that San Antonio needs to find its big men more effectively off the roll or pop, and that the team failed to attack the seams consistently enough when they presented themselves. Too often Spurs guards are getting stuck trying to create, sometimes dropping it into the post out of rhythm, and this all has to change. The pace needs to speed up again.
As for the team’s shooters, more off-ball activity would be a good starting point. They cannot let the Mavericks get away with hiding their two worst perimeter defenders on Green, Leonard and Belinelli.
Early in the game, the Spurs set up a nice little back-pick from Duncan to free Green in the corner and knock Calderón around a little bit. Parker would find Danny for the three and the first points of the game.
Another reason this was successful, though, is because Parker actually got into the f***ing paint as a threat to score. We’ve talked about the fact Dallas is trying to eliminate good looks from the 3-point line, but it also prevented San Antonio from getting to its bread-and-butter in Game 2: penetration toward the rim.
After scoring 56 points on 48 shots in the paint on Sunday, the Spurs managed only 28 points on 27 shots from that area on Wednesday. San Antonio had more 3-point attempts (20) than it did shots from inside the restricted area — 9-of-19 shooting at the rim isn’t going to cut it — and nearly as many from mid-range (17). The Mavericks deserve a ton of credit for throwing the Spurs for a loop, but San Antonio deserves an equal amount of blame.
I want to be clear: the Spurs lost this game because they committed 24 turnovers to Dallas’ eight, the last of which came when Carlisle opted to let the shot clock run out in the closing seconds. You’re just not going to win a playoff game when you give the ball away 16 more times than the opposition, especially when those turnovers lead to 33 points.
On top of it all, the Mavs took 28 more shots than the Spurs over the course of the game. That’s devastating. Pop said after the game that his team didn’t defend well, but it’s difficult to maintain stability on that side of the ball when you’re giving up loads of extra chances in the form of turnovers and offensive rebounds (Dallas had 14 of those on Wednesday).
Again, none of this is rocket science. The Spurs have faced bigger challenges than this Dallas defense on many different occasions, they’ve just rarely been caught this off-guard. But I’m not pushing this aside or dismissing it as an anomaly. The Mavericks have come into this series prepared, and they’ve got the veterans, bench depth, funky lineups and coaching prowess to pose a real threat. But that’s been the story of the competitive Western Conference this season, and San Antonio better pick it up a notch or this thing could become very unsettling in a short period of time.
Carlisle’s made his move, and now we get to see what the Coach of the Year can come up with to change the tide of the series and right the ship in San Antonio.
Screenshots and statistics courtesy of NBA.com/stats