While it lacked the emotions of Game 3's gut-punch of an ending, Friday night's Spurs loss to the Dallas Mavericks left an awful taste in my mouth. I had so many questions about what happened -- and more importantly, didn't happen -- that I asked J. Gomez to clear up some things for me so that I could find a way to look forward to Sunday's Game 7.
I came into Game 5 in really bad shape, about as pessimistic as I've ever been before a Spurs game. With the way San Antonio had struggled against Dallas plus the way Tony Parker looked, not to mention his sprained ankle, I couldn't imagine a scenario that set up for the Spurs to succeed.
But my feelings before Game 6 were entirely different. Not only were the Spurs only a game away from putting away the despised Mavericks, but Tony had showed his ankle wouldn't hold him back, and Splitter had been a revelation. But on top of all of that was the way the Spurs had completely befuddled the Mavs defense down the stretch in Game 5. They got every look they wanted and seemed to score at will.
I told myself that Pop and the boys had finally figured out the unconventional defense Dallas had been playing, and they'd be able to get points whenever they wanted by going to a pick and roll -- especially the side pick and roll that had been an endless source of points in the 4th quarter of Game 5.
Then Friday night came and all of that seemed to evaporate. But the Spurs were scoring plenty of points and shooting over 50% so I figured that they didn't want to give Dallas too many looks at their best weapon, and I was patient. Any time now, I thought, when they really need a sure score they'll go back to what they know works.
But they didn't and I would like for you to tell me if you see a reason why.
Because the Mavs keep adjusting. Instead of letting Ginobili make the pocket pass, they switched and sagged off. They took the dive man out of the equation and made Manu a shooter out of the pick-and-roll. And since Manu went 0-5, there was no down side to the decision.
They do the same to Parker. They stay on shooters and take the roll man away as an option. If Parker drives, the bigs collapse under the rim, forcing Tony to keep his dribble alive and reset. They want the ball handlers to take the shots, they want to turn great creators into volume shooters.
Whenever the Mavs fail to execute that game plan, the Spurs punish them. They know what works, as you mentioned. But San Antonio can't simply pick the defense apart consistently using the pick-and-roll because the Mavs' defense is geared to stopping that play.
Sometimes Dallas makes mistakes, like in game 1 when they had Devin Harris on Parker in the fourth quarter or in game 5 when they allowed pocket pass after pocket pass. But for the most part, they understand their limitations and since they know they can't stop all of the Spurs' weapons, they pick their poison. In this case, they let Parker and Ginobili shoot and live with the consequences.
I get that a single play isn't going to be an endless source of points. Teams adjust, and with the way Rick Carlisle is managing Dallas' resources, it would be foolish for the Spurs to show their hand too soon or too often. But there are a few actions that seem to me to be sure things and I don't understand why they weren't used on Friday night.
The first is the side pick and roll, which the Spurs used in Game 5 down the stretch with a number of different guys involved. Here's the first instance I have of it (although I'm pretty sure there are examples from earlier):
Out of the timeout, Kawhi tells himself to think, and Tiago get two from Mills. https://t.co/0qUQVWF7Wx— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) May 1, 2014
Patty Mills and Tiago Splitter are the lone Spurs on the left side of the court and Dirk Nowitzki and Jose Calderon are being taken to pick and roll school as San Antonio is content to play 2 on 2 while the rest of the Mavericks defense hangs out on the weak side guarding the remaining three Spurs.
Then there's this play where Tony Parker and Tim Duncan do much the same thing against Dirk and Devin Harris. While Parker doesn't use the pocket pass as Mills did, it's still an easy two.
With the game still in doubt, Tim & Tony pick&roll the Mavs to death. https://t.co/EHG6Jumyna— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) May 1, 2014
Can you tell me what happened to this? What did Dallas do to take it away? Or did the Spurs not call it for some other reason?
Dallas made a couple of adjustments. First, they didn't play Brandan Wright, who made mistake after mistake guarding the pick-and-roll in game five. In that play you show, Wright stays glued to Diaw instead of helping. That's not how you defend a side pick-and-roll as a help defender, especially with Dirk guarding the screener. Nowitzki-Wright as a pair defending the pick and roll is as bad as it gets, so Carlisle went away from it completely.
Secondly, they played Blair over Dalembert in the fourth quarter. Blair can reach in when he is hedging because he has good hands. He had two steals in the fourth quarter alone. And as a help defender he takes up space in the paint instead of stepping outside. He is by no means a great pick and roll defender but he knows where to be and is quicker that traditional centers.
Those two tweaks helped the Mavs beef up their pick and roll defense. And because defending the pick and roll dive man wasn't as big a weak spot for Dallas as it was in game 5, the Spurs did get away from it. San Antonio is partially to blame for going away from it and settling for other shots. But the Mavericks' defense did its part.
In a series where San Antonio's regular motion attack has been blunted by Dallas's unconventional schemes, they've been able to score plenty of points, but dry spells have occurred at the most inopportune times. Without a money play they can go to whenever they need it, I've been watching intently every time I see something that the Mavs don't seem to be able to have an answer for.
One of the things I've felt like the Spurs have kept in their back pocket is the Kawhi Leonard post-up against smaller defenders, especially Monta Ellis. The issue is that Carlisle is doubling Kawhi nearly every time he's about to take his man down low. I don't have to tell you that the Spurs have built championship teams around posting up a player that can't be guarded one-on-one, and feeding off the resulting double-teams by reacting with coordinated ball movement to get excellent shots against a scrambling defense.
But Kawhi doesn't seem to be too adept at passing out of the double yet, and so they've been unable to make the Mavs pay for bringing the extra defender to help on Leonard. But in Game 6, this happened:
Which filled me with hope. Then it never happened again.
Even though Splitter was fouled, he made the freebies and the sequence netted points. Am I wrong in thinking that there's something here that the Spurs can exploit when they need sure points?
Not at all. Kawhi will continue to be double teamed in the post, so the Spurs need to find a way to capitalize on that. The problem, as you mentioned, is that Leonard is not a good passer out of it yet and the Mavs send a big man (usually whoever is guarding Tiago Splitter) to help, which limits his field of vision and passing angles.
In that play, the Spurs' bigs move beautifully. Splitter clears the lane for a cutter and Diaw makes the perfect bounce pass after receiving the ball. They made it really easy for Kawhi to make the right decision and that's something they can continue to do. But it's hard to see Kawhi in the post producing sure points.
The Mavs could overload the strong side. In that play you can see how Harris stays with the man in the corner instead of rotating to the cutter. Sure, if he does that, someone will be open for a three. But Kawhi would have to make a cross court pass over the double team. Dallas could also help later in the possession instead of trying to force the ball out of Leonard's hands. If this series has taught me anything, it's that Rick Carlisle will adjust if he sees the Spurs getting consistent points off a play.
That being said, I do believe the Spurs should try to use Leonard in the post more often. At least try it out early, just to see how the defense reacts. Because there is a potential for good looks deriving from it.
While they scored at a very high level, the offense could still use some tweaking. But it was defense and rebounding that doomed the Spurs in Game 6.