The Spurs Can Play Great Defense

Get there a bit quicker next time, Tony.

Last week, Zach Lowe of The Point Forward at SI.com wrote a great piece about defending the corner three. Then Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm sent me some tweets about how he'd been trying to compliment the recent play of the Spurs, but was finding it difficult to back his kind words up with the numbers. With both of these subjects swirling around in my mind, I happened to remember my one conversation with a coach on the Spurs staff last year, and suddenly it all became clear to me.

Back when San Antonio was perennially the home of one of the league's best defenses, it was the perfectly orchestrated rotations that always amazed me. The Spurs would double-team the ball handler, and he'd pass out of it to hit the open man as someone would rotate to him just in time to make him pass the ball too. This would repeat itself all the way around the perimeter and end with someone in the corner receiving the ball just as a man got in place to stop the shot, and the offense would have to start over. The defense had covered every threat, and didn't have to pay for doubling.

As time went on, Bruce and Horry retired, Duncan aged and the defense took one step after another down from the mountain, back among the rest of the teams in the NBA and even below many of them. Which brings me to last season, my first attending games as a member of the media, and an off-the-record conversation I had with one of the Spurs' coaches. I was curious about the mindset concerning three point defense in view of some numbers that confused me. The Spurs were getting pilloried at the time, in view of the horrific percentage they were allowing teams to shoot three pointers against them, and I thought this was unfair.

Wasn't the definition of good three-point defense, I asked myself, keeping the other team from shooting many threes? If so, the Spurs would be considered an excellent defense, since at the time they were allowing the league's lowest number of shots beyond the arc. And yet, there was one story after another with details about the high percentage San Antonio was giving up on threes. I couldn't make sense of it. If every team liked to take threes, seeing as it's one of the most efficient shots in the game, then they would take them whenever they're available. If the Spurs weren't allowing many to be shot, then that means they were making them difficult to get. That's what I call good defense!

But if the Spurs were playing good defense, then how to explain the percentage of threes that their oppenents were making? It just didn't seem to follow. I reviewed the principles of defending in basketball. Good defense yields low percentages from the field. Good defense forces difficult shots. Good defense takes teams out of their comfort zone and keeps them from shooting where they want. How could the Spurs be doing all of that (as well as limiting three pointers taken) and yet still be at fault for the high percentage of long balls that were dropping against them?

So, I took advantage of my new-found press pass, and had a discussion about three point defense with a coach who shall remain nameless. (No, it wasn't Pop. It was one of his assistants.) It took me a while to really get into the nitty-gritty of my question. And even when I thought I was getting there, I still couldn't understand where the disconnect in my thinking was. Surely, there was an explanation. Right? It couldn't just be due to luck. That wasn't interesting at all. As I asked question after question, continuing to dig deeper into the issue, I felt the time slipping away and felt sure that he was going to wish me a good evening before he broke away to finish his preparations for the game that was about to start. And then he said something very interesting that made it all worth it.

I'm going from memory, so these are not his words, but he said something to this effect: good defenses don't try to keep the other team from shooting threes, they stop their good shooters from shooting threes. And suddenly everything made sense to me. The Spurs were limiting the shots that players were taking from three point range, but if the other team's best shooters were the ones taking those shots, it didn't matter if they took a lot or a few, they'd be making a good percentage of them. Which brings me to this year's team, and their performance in these same metrics.

The final paragraph of Lowe's story that I linked in the intro reads:

San Antonio, for instance, is holding teams to 36 percent shooting on corner threes this season after yielding that ghastly 47 percent figure last season. Is that luck, or has Popovich's club sharpened its focus?

Well, it looks like he's wondering about the very same thing that I was trying to figure out last year without success. What is the key to unlocking this seemingly random number? I think it comes down to defensive versatility. With guys like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard making rotations and chasing down shooters, it's more difficult for the offense to work the ball around to their best shooter in his favorite spot with time to shoot. As much as anything else, I think this is the reason for the Spurs' improvement on the defensive side of the ball.

Now, you can talk about the defensive rating numbers that Moore sent me. You can discuss your concern about a team that excels on offense and at times struggles to get a stop. You can even compare this year's Spurs team to those of the championship years, and show me a dozen different ways that they fall short. I don't care. I may be overly optimistic, but we'll see in the playoffs. For now, I'm going to rest in these facts: the Spurs have played most of the year without Manu while resting Tim and Tony as Pop sees fit, they have the best record in the NBA over the past two months, and they added pieces in Jackson and Diaw that upgraded them significantly.

And finally, the one piece of info that @HPBasketball tweeted me on Saturday that I was glad to hear about. Since the All Star Break, the Spurs defense in the fourth quarter? It's top ten. That's enough for me right now.

UPDATE: Zach Lowe's Monday Musings talked about the Spurs' crunch time defense too.

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