In Game 3 of the NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs made a Finals record 16 three pointers en route to the third largest victory in Finals history. Other factors contributed to the victory but it was the three point shooting, led by Danny Green, 7-for-9, and Gary Neal, 6-fo-10, that blew open the game.
The 16-of-32 three point shooting is incredible but more significant is the ease with which San Antonio found open three point opportunities.
The Spurs understand Miami’s defensive system and are able to take advantage of its flaws. Here is an example indicative of a common breakdown in the Miami defense.
This is a variation on the “Loop” set San Antonio often runs. After passing to Manu Ginobili at the top of the court, Tony Parker runs through a series of screens, curls towards the ball, and receives a pass from Ginobili. San Antonio knows that Miami is a very aggressive pick and roll trapping team. The loop often flows directly into a pick and roll with the last screener serving as the roll man after Parker makes the catch.
On this play, Duncan expects Chris Bosh to trap Parker off his screen and immediately drops into post-position. Parker makes a nice pass into Tim Duncan, getting him the ball before Bosh is able to recover. This forces LeBron James to switch off Kawhi Leonard to guard Tim Duncan, leaving Dwyane Wade to defend Leonard.
Leonard instantly recognizes that Miami has overloaded the strong side and moves to basket, forcing Wade to stay tightly on him. This leaves Mike Miller to defend both Ginobili, his original man, and Danny Green, now in the corner. Duncan, and excellent passer, finds Ginobili, who swings the ball to Green for a wide-open corner three.
San Antonio uses a clever misdirection to further take advantage of Miami’s defense. On a typical Loop set, Green would be positioned in the left corner. At the beginning of the play, he appears to be headed to this spot but stops at the post area near Tim Duncan. Green than fakes as if he were setting a screen, another common variation of the Loop, but cuts back and runs to the opposite corner.
Thought this shot was missed, San Antonio was able to find open opportunities out of similar sets designed to take advantage of Miami’s pick and roll traps.
So, what does this have to do with the Warriors?
To achieve future success, the Warriors will have to consistently overcome defenses geared to stop them. Like San Antonio has done to Miami, the Warriors must be able to acknowledge and take advantage of defensive tendencies, a test in both innovation and execution.
Monday night, the San Antonio Spurs completed a sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies, securing a spot in the finals and leaving Memphis to join the 26 other teams watching the conference finals on TV. Though Games 2 and 3 were decided in overtime, the Spurs appeared to be in control throughout the series. San Antonio dispatched the Golden State Warriors in the second round, but appeared to struggle in the process, losing two games and overcoming a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter of another.
San Antonio scored 104.4 points per 100 possessions to the Warriors in their second round series, and allowed 99.7, per nba.com. In the four games versus Memphis, the Spurs scored 105.3 points per 100 possessions, and allowed 93.4. During the regular season, the Grizzlies allowed only 100.3 points per 100 possessions, second only to the Indiana Pacers, and scored 104.9. As was expected, Memphis affected San Antonio’s offensive production. Memphis had been scoring at a top ten rate after the Rudy Gay trade, and likely needed to maintain at least average offensive production to beat San Antonio. Instead, San Antonio held Memphis to an offensive rating 6.8 points per 100 possessions worse than the league-worst Washington Wizards’ season production.
Despite the drastic difference in performance versus San Antonio, the Warriors’ success relative to Memphis should not be perceived as superiority. Though teams work to become versatile, performance in the NBA is often dictated by match-ups, and the Spurs are better equipped to overcome Memphis’ strengths and take advantage of their weaknesses than the Warriors.
Led by Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, Memphis finished 15.7% of their offensive possessions with a post up, according to mysynergysports.com. The post-up itself is not a very efficient offensive weapon. The 8th ranked Grizzlies scored 0.86 points per play off post ups and 0.9 points per play overall. However posting up, especially if it forces the defense to double team, as Randolph and Gasol often do, forces defenses to adjust, drawing help defenders, forcing rotations, and opening other opportunities for the offense.
The removal of David Lee skews the data, but the Warriors allowed 0.85 points per play to post ups this season, 19th in the league. Andrew Bogut, as he showed against Tim Duncan, is a very good post defender, but the other Warriors defenders lack the size, strength, mobility, or defensive intelligence to be effective versus Randolph and Gasol. San Antonio, conversely, allowed only 0.76 points per play to post ups, best in the league.
The more significant difference is between the two teams help strategies against post ups.
Here, the Warriors allow San Antonio to make a clean inbounds pass, leaving Tim Duncan isolated in the post against Carl Landry. Only after Duncan has established deep post position, Klay Thompson leaves Manu Ginobili at the top of the key to help on Duncan. Thompson’s help defense is not aggressive enough to affect Duncan’s move, but leaves Manu Ginobili wide open for three one pass from the ball. The Grizzlies spot-up shooters are far less of a concern than San Antonio’s, making this defense still unacceptable defense less damaging. Even against Memphis, surrendering decent spot up opportunities is poor defense. Though they ranked 28th in the league in spot up points play, the 0.9 points per play scored by Memphis of spot ups is equally efficient to their overall offense and more efficient than a post up field goal attempt.
Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan give San Antonio the ability to defend post-ups without double-teaming. Also, San Antonio’s pre-post up defense is generally more effective than the Warriors. The Spurs’ wing defenders, especially Kawhi Leonard, are very good at harassing in bounds passers and helping on to posting big men prior to an entry pass. Entry passes are made even more difficult by San Antonio’s commitment to fronting the post.
At 31 percent, the Grizzlies have the second highest offensive rebound percentage in the league. Memphis has the league’s 3rd least efficient offense off offensive rebounds, scoring 1.01 points per play according to mysynergysports.com. But as with spot ups, Memphis’ inefficiency relative to the rest of the league does not mean plays ending in a shot off an offensive rebound are inefficient relative to Memphis’ own offense. Of the categories tracked by Synergy, offensive rebounds is the third most efficient source of offense for the Grizzlies, trailing only cut and transition opportunities.
With David Lee off the court, the Warriors allowed a 58.6 percent offensive rebound percentage to shots by the opponent generated off offensive rebounds, compared to only 43.9 percent off a made field goal or free throw (To clarify: after the Warriors made a field goal or free throw, the Warriors allowed their opponents to shoot 43.9 percent adjusted field goal percentage) and 46.8 percent off a defensive rebound (meaning after the Warriors missed a field goal or free throw attempt, and the Warriors’ opponent rebounded, the Warriors opponent shot a 46.8 percent adjusted field goal percentage), according to nbawowy.com. The Spurs allowed only 51.0 percent effective field goal percentage shooting after offensive rebounds.
Given the limited sample size of the Warriors’ without David Lee and with a healthy Andrew Bogut, it is difficult to predict the results of a hypothetical Memphis-Golden State series. Perhaps the injuries to Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut that affected their performance versus San Antonio may not have occurred, but given the injury history of those two players, that cannot be guaranteed.
Mike Conley and Tony Allen are elite on ball perimeter defenders and a threat to the Warriors hypothetical offensive production. However, despite his on-ball prowess, Allen is not a consistent off ball defender, often straying off his man in misguided attempts to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Had Lionel Hollins chosen to defend Stephen Curry with Tony Allen, the Warriors use of Curry off the ball may have had more success than it did against the Spurs. However, had Curry not injured his ankle he may never have shifted into this off ball role, in which case Allen and Conley may have drastically decreased his offensive efficiency.
While the Warriors would not be guaranteed a loss versus the Grizzlies, they would not be able to target Memphis’ weaknesses and limit their strengths as effectively as the Spurs.
In what fans hope soon becomes a less rare occasion, the Golden State Warriors are not going to spend their offseason scouting potential lottery picks. The refreshing lack of draft picks does not remove the doubts of the typical off-season. Though the players were already on the roster, the principle remains the same: the Warriors are hoping that their young players, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Festus Ezeli, and even Kent Bazemore are able to improve.
Klay Thompson’s recently addressed defensive improvements salvaged a frustrating offensive season. In a pre-season ESPN poll surveying 30 league officials, Klay Thompson was voted “most likely to breakout,” and though his defense was a revelation, this almost certainly predicted an offensive explosion. Instead, Thompson was inconsistent; sometimes brilliant, sometimes depressing, and nearly always confusing.
Thompson clearly has offensive skills. At 1.26 points per play, he ranked 16th in points per play in spot up situations according to mysynergysports.com, despite a shot selection likely poorer than comparable shooters.
Most of Thompson’s offensive game is built around his shooting ability. He is always a threat spotting up, often in transition. As the his offensive role expanded, Thompson became the beneficiary of many of the Warriors’ off-ball actions. He is Stephen Curry’s partner in many of the Warriors cross screen sets and runs countless pin-downs per game.
As he established himself as a scoring threat off these pin-down style plays, further offensive opportunities emerged. Defenders often overplay to deny the jump shot, allowing Thompson to get into the lane. Though his 55.3 percent field goal percentage within five feet of the rim is slightly below average, that amounts to 1.106 points per shot, excluding free throws. With free throw attempts included, the Warriors scored 1.085 points per shot this season.
Once Thompson became a threat to drive off overplays, defensive big men began stepping into his driving lane, allowing him to pass down to the offensive big man rolling off the screen. As the season progressed, Thompson improved at reading the defense in these situations.
With improved shot selection and more consistent footwork, Thompson can become a very effective offensive player on the already established base of his shooting ability, but can he improve beyond that point? As Kawhi Leonard so eagerly displayed, good defenders can take away much of Thompson’s efficient option.
Many of Klay Thompson’s inefficiencies are generated by struggles around the rim. He can get by his man, but does not have the explosion to beat the rotating big men to the rim. Thompson is forced into taking many layups from beyond his limited comfort zone. An improved finishing ability would obviously make Thompson a more potent scorer. He blows several transition opportunities per game, both from a fear of driving and an inability to convert when he does drive. Thompson’s fear of contact at the rim should draw no comparisons to the problem that once haunted Derrick Rose. While Rose contorted his body to avoid contact and finish the layup, Thompson consistently jumps to early or at awkward angles in trying to simply get a shot off. As he becomes more comfortable with NBA defense, Thompson may be able to draw fouls at a rate higher than the 0.11 free throws per field goal attempt he drew this season.
Towards the end of the season, Thompson revealed another aspect to his offensive game. Often off 1-2 pick and rolls, he began posting up defenders, usually in the mid-post below the elbow.
Thompson often takes the fade-away, but is also able to get defenders off balance and drive into the lane, opening up kick-outs to shooters and dump off passes to big men. Several of the actions Thompson already runs would allow him to take advantage of a more developed post offense. Misdirections and seals can be incorporated into many of the Warriors’ sets. The baseline runner in the flex-style offense shown in the video above has many opportunities for deep post position.
The Warriors’ corner sets offer another opportunity to create post touches for Thompson. At 0:56, Thompson stops his cut below the basket instead of continuing to the perimeter, allowing him to seal off Manu Ginobli for an easy layup.
The greatest impediment to Thompson becoming a consistent scorer is his dribbling ability. For many players, dribbling is one of the most difficult skills to improve. Thompson will likely never have the control or creativity to be an effective off the dribble scorer, but developing a steady handle will open many more opportunities.
According to mysynergysports.com, Thompson finished 7.5 percent of his plays as a pick and roll ball handler, very low for a high-usage guard, and was very inefficient in these situations, scoring only 0.57 points per play. Better dribbling and more consistent footwork when shooting off the dribble will allow Thompson to use the pick and roll as a secondary option after several off-ball sets.
With an improved handle, Thompson’s already established off-ball prowess will increase the Warriors offensive options. Sets similar to the Denver Nuggets single down imitate the pin-down the Warriors typically run to open Thompson for a mid-range jumper, but are designed to give the offensive player a lane through the middle of the court. By adding wrinkles to his own game, Thompson allows the Warriors to diversify their offense and put Thompson in better scoring position.
Teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers often have wing players cut across big men in the high post for handoffs. Players like Paul George are given lanes to the basket, as the high-post big man’s defender is likely out of position to pick up a drive as he defends his man. When defenders go under the screen, the cutter is generally given an open jump shot. With improvements to his dribbling and finishing, Klay Thompson could be very effective in similar situations.
Klay Thompson needs only to make minor improvements to become an efficient scorer in his current role. Improvements beyond shot selection and minor footwork will be needed for him to become the diverse wing scorer the Warriors currently lack.
Game after game, year after year, the San Antonio Spurs exercise their calculated, methodical genius. Possession after possession, play after play, the Spurs pass, cut, screen, and penetrate their way through the opponents’ defense, and though the defense resists, the Spurs almost inevitably find their shot. “The hammer”, the set shown above, represents many of the principles of San Antonio’s offense. While San Antonio’s system whittles away at a defense, it is the aptly named “hammer” that often drives the final nail.San Antonio’s hammer sets, as the video shows, generally involve off and on ball movement prior to this point, but the first key step is what appears to be a high screen. San Antonio knows that many defenses attempt to prevent the ball handler from using the screen. In accordance with the set, San Antonio has cleared the middle of the floor, leaving an open lane for the ball-handler, in this case Cory Joseph, to drive.As the guard drives, the weak-side defensive big man is forced to step in to contest. Meanwhile, San Antonio’s big man sets a back screen on the defensive wing, usually a couple steps off his man in help position, while San Antonio’s shooter cuts to the corner, setting up an easy pass to a wide-open man for the best shot in basketball.While the specific play may have been used no more than a couple times against the Warriors, it displays the intelligence that couples with San Antonio’s talent to make the team as successful as it is. The Spurs account for the nuances of the opposing teams expected defense on the initial deceptive screen, and take advantage of help schemes with the back screen.The Warriors may have resisted San Antonio, riding their own hot shooting and San Antonio’s unexpected turnovers and inconsistent shooting to two victories, but a large part of the Warriors performance was simply unsustainable if the Warriors hoped to win. The Warriors presented an intriguing case, but not one that held up against San Antonio’s aggressive examination. From their own shooting to the Spurs’ struggles to convert on repeated open corner threes, among other opportunities, the Warriors could not maintain their performance, and were, like many teams before them, sentenced to death by San Antonio’s compassionless execution.
Fortunately for the Warriors, the NBA death is not finite. The Warriors have next year, and an eternity after that, to build on this season. While a loss is never welcome, the San Antonio Spurs gave the Warriors a model on which they can base their aspirations. While the brilliance of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobli may be responsible for much of San Antonio’s success, the Spurs have set the standard for player development and on court execution for several years. Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, and Danny Green, recent products of San Antonio’s system were key in carrying out the Warriors’ sentence.
The Spurs, at least more so than other teams, take advantage of their players’ talents, bringing success not just to the players but to the entire team, and apart from a few creative diversions from Manu Ginobli, the Spurs’ players generally stay within this system.
The Warriors have a bright future, but as the Spurs have shown the last few years, success is not guaranteed. While loss is not always a learning experience, the Warriors could learn learn a lot from the Spurs.
Stephen Curry’s hot hand may be limited to the court, but over the last month he has set the basketball world on fire. After suffering through the Curry experience in Game 1, the Spurs began experimenting new defensive strategies to be used on Curry. Amid the cries of “top five point guard!” and “best shooter ever!” Gregg Popovich was focused on slowing the newly anointed star.
Though likely helped by an ankle injury, the Spurs have greatly limited Curry since Game 2. In three games since the Game 2 victory in San Antonio, Stephen Curry has a true shooting percentage of only 47.9 percent, far below of 58.9 percent true shooting during the regular season and 57.1 percent for the playoffs. These struggles have not simply been a matter of scoring efficiency. Curry’s assist percentage (percent of teammates field goals assisted while on court) has dropped from his regular season 31.1 percent to 24.1 percent, and his usage rate has dropped from 26.4 percent to 22.6 percent. Along with dramatically limiting his efficiency, the Spurs have pressured Curry out of his typical rate of creation.
In Game 1 Tony Parker was Stephen Curry’s primary defender. Since then, Curry has primarily faced Danny Green, with intermittent spurts versus Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard. Tony Parker is a match-up liability versus the Warriors’ large wings, but the Spurs are clearly willing to surrender this in exchange for the ability to keep Green consistently matched up with Curry.
In his second year in San Antonio, Danny Green has developed into a very good perimeter defender. Warriors fans may recognize his ability to use his length to his advantage after recently admiring Klay Thompson’s defense. Green also has the strength, quickness, defensive instincts, and understanding of help-schemes to be a very good defender both on and off the ball.
Green’s willingness to pick up James Harden so far from the basket does not suggest he would ever give Curry the space to take an uncontested jump shot, as Harden is a far greater threat to attack the rim than Curry.
Green will not willingly surrender an inch of space on the perimeter, and in the pick and roll, the Spurs big men have been more committed to hedging and trapping Curry since Game 2.
Green, assisted by Curry’s shift to an off ball role, has done very well in limiting Curry’s space and denying any shooting opportunities. Over the course of the series, Curry has shifted towards an off-ball role. This off-ball role in Game 4 may have been induced by an ankle injury at the end of Game 3, but Curry’s shift began before Game 4, and continued through Game 5, when Curry appeared less hampered by ankle troubles. This shift to an off-ball role may be due to a belief that Curry puts more pressure on the defense running through off-ball screens, or that Curry needs the structured spacing of these plays to find scoring opportunities, but regardless of the Warriors’ motivation, Danny Green, along with the entire Spurs defense, has been excellent in preventing Curry from performing well offensively in this role.
To get Curry “going” again, the Warriors can wait for some miracle shooting, or proactively create beneficial offensive opportunities. They have attempted to free Curry for jump shots through off-ball action, but the disciplined Spurs have allowed very little space to Curry, often hedging or not-so-accidentally bumping Curry as he runs through off-ball screens. Athletic defenders like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are able to chase Curry through these patterns without losing any significant ground.
Throughout the seasons, Curry’s primary method of on-ball attack was the pick and roll. 32.2 percent of Curry’s shot attempts, drawn fouls, or turnovers were generated through the pick and roll, far more than any other category tracked by mysynergysports.com. The Warriors recognize Curry’s proficiency in the pick and roll, and have developed a complex offense around the pick and roll.
Curry’s pick and roll are generally initiated from to locations, the top of key above the three-point line, or slightly above the break. Against top of the key pick and rolls, the Spurs big men generally stay in the paint, leaving Curry open for mid-range jump shots. Possibly because the athleticism of Green and Leonard makes these shots more difficult, Curry has been less aggressive off top of the key pick and rolls. He made his way into the paint off several at the beginning of Game 5, but went away from this action as the game progressed.
With the Warriors seemingly committed to using Curry off-ball, especially when Jarrett Jack is playing, many of Curry’s recent pick and rolls have been initiated towards the wing. Curry generally finishes off-ball plays in the corner or near the break, and drifts towards the wing. As the primary ball-handler, Curry will often dribble to this spot to set up the pick and roll.
Throughout the season, the Warriors ran these “Hawk Angle” pick and rolls. This action is generally preceded by a cutter running through the lane.
Against San Antonio, the Warriors have been reluctant to send this cutter when running hawk-angle pick and rolls.
In this play, Klay Thompson sets the screen for Curry, and rolls towards the right corner. The Warriors spacing on this play allows Boris Diaw to defend and box out both Landry and Lee, leaving Tim Duncan free to cover any penetration, meaning Kawhi Leonard can hedge aggressively deny the jump shot before recovering to Thompson.
The goal of this pick and roll may just be to draw a Parker switch onto Thompson, but the Warriors have run the hawk-angle pick and roll without sending the cutter regardless of the screener during this series. Even if Klay Thompson were on the opposite wing and David Lee was setting the screen, the Spurs’ help defenders would be able to free Duncan by having the man in the corner step down to fill Duncan’s rotation, only punishable by an extremely difficult kick pass by Curry to the opposite corner only LeBron James has mastered.
On this iteration of the hawk angle pick and roll, Klay Thompson runs through the lane as Harrison Barnes comes to set the screen. This forces the defense to account for Thompson running through the lane and coming off a screen on the opposite side, forcing Howard and Gasol to commit to help defense longer than expected, giving Curry more room to operate both in the middle of the court and on the right side.
Curry’s ankle injury may render any hope for Curry’s re-emergence as an offensive star a failure, but putting Curry in position to succeed is necessary if the Warriors hope to come back in the series. Off-ball actions often devolve into simple isolations on the catch, and against the Spurs have rarely produced open looks. Operating out of the pick and roll allows Curry to create or find his own space, and affects San Antonio’s defense much more than spot-ups and off-ball screens typically do. Stephen Curry has become an elite offensive NBA player, and as any Knicks (or general NBA) viewer will confirm, putting an offensive talent in position to succeed involves more than simply getting them the ball.
The Warriors overcame poor shooting and an eight-point halftime deficit to even the series at two games apiece. The Warriors held the Spurs to 35.5 percent shooting, only slightly worse than their 38.0 percent performance, and were especially effective defensively to end the game. After injuring his ankle at the end of Game 3, Stephen Curry appeared slowed, and spent the majority of the game off the ball, often forgotten as the Warriors struggled offensively.
Why the Warriors Won:
In classic Warriors fashion, the Warriors controlled the boards and dominated defensively. Well, maybe it was not the typical Golden State victory, and maybe the Warriors’ defensive success was as much a result of poor shooting by San Antonio as it was due to the Warriors’ actions, but the Warriors grabbed several key offensive rebounds, made a few vital stops, and received just enough assistance from San Antonio to eek out a victory.
With 4:18 left in the fourth quarter, Kawhi Leonard pulled down an easy offensive and scored on an uncontested layup, putting the Spurs up 80 to 72. Over the next three possessions, Jarrett Jack made three straight midrange jumpers, while the Spurs scored only once, decreasing the lead to four. More importantly, the Jack had returned some semblance of offensive production to the Warriors’ offense while the Spurs’ struggles continued.
Today’s award goes to Jarrett Jack, almost by default. Jack scored 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting, and though they eventually won, Jack led the Warriors through many offensive possessions that were nothing more than offensive. Jack did not play well defensively, though he was not abused to the same degree as prior games, but someone has to take credit for the Warriors’ late game comeback. Jack keyed the Warriors offense down the stretch, avoided any crippling turnovers, and was efficient enough for the Warriors to win.
Stephen Curry, despite appearing immobile for many stretches, scored 22 points on 7-of-15 shooting. Curry was a team high plus-23 in his 39 minutes, but was not able to be the offensive focus on whom the Warriors have come to rely. Harrison Barnes attempted a career-high 26 field goals, but only made nine. Barnes repeatedly attacked out of the mid-post and off wing isolations, often against the smaller Tony Parker and Gary Neal.
On a night when nearly every player struggled offensively, Manu Ginobli may have been the most dynamic. Ginobli made 5-of-10 attempts from behind the arc, and converted 8-of-18 shots to score 21 points. Ginobli missed several key attempts towards the end of the game, and though he created much of the Spurs’ offense, he often damaged it as well.
First off, any superlative designated without concrete proof will be subject to opinion, and determining the “best” is an often-impossible exercise that serves not to come to a definite conclusion, but to further collective appreciation for an incredible game.
As a Warriors fan, the last 15 or so minutes were as excruciating for me as I imagine they were exciting for an objective viewer, and while I have definitely experienced more “enjoyable” games, from an objective perspective, Game 1 was the pinnacle of basketball entertainment.
Historically, several factors have embedded games in our collective memories, and Game 1 had them all.
In the supposedly star-driven NBA, individual performances often stand above team results. We do not remember Game 6 of the 1980 NBA finals as the time the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Philadelphia 76ers to clinch the series. Instead, that game was made legendary by Magic Johnson’s brilliant performance in the absence of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Tales of Magic Johnson starting at center and playing every single position have persevered without regard to the team-level circumstances or results of the game, other than a basic knowledge of its importance and victor. Similarly, Game 6 of last year’s eastern conference finals between the Celtics and Heat, is often described as “The Lebron Game,” or more accurately, “one of several Lebron games.” Individual performances tend to capture attention to a greater degree than team-generated victories, and in Game 1, Stephen Curry provided plenty of individual achievement.
Curry was struggling through a mediocre night, but exploded in the third quarter, scoring 22 points as the Warriors seemingly put away the Spurs. What makes Curry’s performance even more memorable from a historical perspective are the stylistic differences between Curry and the great scorers of NBA history.
Here is Curry’s third quarter shot chart.
Curry only attempted two shots at the rim, and did not earn a single free-throw. Instead, Curry’s transcendent shooting provided the scoring punch. As such a singular, unique skill, Curry’s shooting amplifies his dominance, and leads to many of the more awe-inspiring shots made by any NBA player.
Along with individual performances, odds-defying comebacks are common among the NBA classics. Reggie Miller’s late game heroics against the New York Knicks inspired a 30-for-30 feature, and the name of a popular blog. In the reverse of Monday’s result, a San Antonio regular season game was immortalized when Tracy McGrady scored 13 points in 35 seconds to complete an improbable comeback.
Though equal parts comeback and collapse, Game 1 provided all the drama of these incredible games. The San Antonio Spurs became the first team ever to win a playoff game after trailing by 16 points in the final four minutes, moving teams in that unenviable situation to 1-and-393 all time.
If Stephen Curry’s 2013 playoff-high 44 points and a record-setting comeback were not enough, the game went through two overtimes and came down to the final possession. Manu Ginobli’s clutch three sealed the Spurs’ victory and put the finishing touches on the historically great Game 1.
“Spurs basketball” has become synonymous with “efficiency”, and “playing to your strengths,” and, as much as even Tim Duncan, Tony Parker embodies San Antonio’s core values. As control of the offense shifted from Tim Duncan to him, Parker has expanded his offensive game, but only within the boundaries of efficiency. Though a late season ankle injury derailed his bid, Tony Parker was among the lower-ranking MVP candidates throughout the season.
Parker, along with most other Spurs, rarely attacks without advantage. Of course, a player a skilled and quick as Parker finds himself able to create advantageous situations far more than most players. According to Synergy, Parker ranks 14th in the league in isolation points per play, 24th off-screens, 15th in hand-off situations, 2nd on cuts, and 11th in the bread, butter, jam, plate, and accompanying glass of milk of his offense, the pick and roll. The pick and roll comprises 46.2% of Parker’s offensive possessions, and is the main the central component of San Antonio’s offense. San Antonio, which finished seventh in regular season offensive efficiency, either finishes or initiates many of its offensive possessions with a Parker-Duncan pick and roll, and generates opportunities for other players off defensive attention to this action.
Along with the high pick and roll, San Antonio uses a variety of sets to put Parker in position to score.
Here is the end result of a drag-screen/pin down play the Spurs often run. Parker, a 47.2 percent mid-range shooter, is wide open for the jumper, but also has an open lane towards the middle of the key as his man recovers from the baseline. If Pau Gasol steps down to help, Tim Duncan, a 43.3 percent mid-range shooter, will be wide open. If Dwight Howard steps up to cut off Parker, a Tiago Splitter will likely have an open dunk as Parker’s defender chases Parker. On this play, Parker takes and makes the mid-range jumper, but could have easily scored off the drive. Parker’s touch around the rim, as well as the ability to find open looks in the paint based off his speed and hesitation moves make him one of the best finishing guards in the league, evidenced by a 67.8 percent field goal percentage in the restricted area.
Here, Dwight Howard covers the pick and roll the same way Andrew Bogut is expected to. He drops into the paint, denying the drive, but leaving parker open for a mid-range jumper. This is a better result for the Lakers than an open driving lane would be, but just as Ty Lawson did in the first round, Parker will be able to convert a high rate of these open opportunities.
Parker’s main flaw is his inconsistent shooting from behind the arc. This season, he has made 37 percent of his left corner threes, an impressive 47.6 percent of his right corner threes, and only 21.1 percent of his above the break attempts. Perhaps more telling are Parker’s limited attempts. He has only taken 68 three-point shots this season. Of course, leaving Parker open for jump shots is simply not a good strategy. Though Synergy ranks him as the league’s 132nd best spot-up shooter, he still scores 1.01 points per play off these looks, a respectable points per-play (not to be confused with per possession: per possession factors in scoring opportunities off offensive rebounds, so per possession statistics for offenses will always show a higher offensive rating than per play) of 1.01.
The method for slowing Tony Parker has been in development since mid-season game against the Spurs, when, suffering from a fortunate bout of creative coaching, Mark Jackson started Klay Thompson on Tony Parker. Though he lacks the speed of top defenders like the recently-overcome Andre Iguodala, Thompson’s size length allow him to disrupt point guards throughout possessions by forcing them to create more space for passing and driving lanes, and open shots. In the first round, Mark Jackson showed a clear willingness to cross-match Thompson on to the quicker Ty Lawson, but did not fully commit to the strategy, as it often forced Stephen Curry to guard Andre Iguodala. With Brewer in the game, the Warriors were generally able to switch without repercussions, but did not always take advantage of the opportunity.
Here, Ty Lawson cannot get around Thompson as he comes off the screen, and is pulls up for the three. Thompson is long enough to contest the shot after sagging a couple feet off of Lawson to prevent the drive.
Against San Antonio, the Warriors should have an easier time switching Thompson on to Parker. Stephen Curry will be able to guard Danny Green for many minutes, without fearing foul trouble, or giving up a significant size advantage to a main offensive piece like he did against Iguodala.
If the Warriors are to have any hope of stopping Tony Parker and the Spurs’ offense, Andrew Bogut will have to consistently be as physically active and mobile as he was during his best stretches against Denver. Even if the series long exposure inspires Andre Iguodala level defense from Thompson, Tony Parker will find ways to the rim. Against Parker’s calculated rim attacks, Bogut, the last line of defense, must constantly be in position to deny scoring opportunities without forcing extra Warriors’ to rotate down defensively, forcing Parker to kick to the perimeter, not to open shooters, but as an outlet from a contested shot.
Draymond Green’s offensive play in the final games against Denver makes another intriguing option possible. So long is he is not too heavy a burden on the offense, Draymond Green may be the Warriors most effective pick and roll defending big man. Unlike Carl Landry and David Lee’s defense often suggest, the four-year college player already has a high-level understanding of pick and roll defense, and has the mobility to act upon this knowledge. Green saw more action as a perimeter defender than big man defender against Denver, but is one of the few Warriors who could effectively hedge and recover against Tony Parker off Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, or even Tim Duncan, who would likely take advantage of Green in the post.
The Warriors best option may simply be to force Parker to score and avoid compromising their rotations. Parker scored efficiently against the Lakers in the first round, but by overcompensating, the Lakers played right into the Spurs desires. San Antonio has put together a roster of shooters capable of taking advantage of any significant opening, and big men who can score in several situations. When defenses focus their attention on Parker, they open many more scoring opportunities for San Antonio’s vaunted offense.