The Spurs 106-74 Game 1 victory Sunday night was expected. With a rash of injuries plaguing an already regressing version of the Grizzlies, anything but a sweep will be a surprise. And yet, with just over five minutes left in the first half, the Grizzlies trailed by just five points, 33-28.
The game started with Vince Carter making several impressive individual plays. The Grizzlies only hope in this series is wing scorers having out of body performances, and Vince appeared ready to attempt that early. Sometimes you have to tip your cap to great one-on-one play. But given the lack of shooting and talent on the current Memphis roster, the solution was simple: deny the ball from the few players that can hurt you.
In this play, Lance Stephenson is the guy that "could" potentially do damage. Watch Kawhi completely take him out of the play:
I want to highlight the impact of denial defense. It's not merely that you are preventing a scorer from catching the ball, but it's that you are baiting poor shooters into taking low percentage shots. Here, you have the following players matched up:
Tony Parker vs. Xavier Munford
Tim Duncan vs. Jarell Martin
Kawhi Leonard vs. Lance Stephenson
LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Zach Randolph
Manu Ginobili vs. Tony Allen
The talent gap is jarring, but the Spurs don't rest on their laurels. Rather than saying, "Hey, we're a lot better, lets just play this straight up," the Spurs say "Hey, we're only up five, lets pick up the intensity and take away their best player." Not to mention a player who is emotional and prone to mental lapses.
Memphis sets up this play with Xavier Munford at the point, Stephenson and Martin bunched up on the right, and Randolph and Allen bunched up on the left. Stephenson cuts across and motions Tony Allen to take a cross-screen, but they're not on the same page. Stephenson ditches the play, and curls back to the right short corner area to post up.
This is when Kawhi goes into full denial mode. He does three things:
(1) Engage the defender. Kawhi gets both arms on Stephenson as he cuts backs towards the ball. This allows Leonard to feel where he's going. Additionally, this sends a message that Lance is not going to touch the ball on this play.
(2) Defensive Stance. Kawhi has his arms extended out and he is low to the ground. He is able to bounce back and forth with Lance while simultaneously denying an entry pass with his wingspan. If his arms are down an entry pass can be made. If he doesn't get low, Lance will be able to cut easily.
(3) See Ball, See Man. If you've ever been to a youth basketball game you may have heard coaches shouting "See Ball See Man." Notice Leonard's head is on a swivel. He is facing Lance, but he never loses site of where the basketball is.
While this is happening Memphis is completely stagnant. Martin, who received a bounce pass from Munford as Stephenson was posting, has no choice but to use a dribble-handoff to return the ball to Munford. With Parker screened, Duncan wisely zones up the pick and roll by staying between Martin and Munford in the elbow area. Munford takes what the defense is giving, a pull-up jumper, and Duncan provides a solid contest to force the miss.
If you keep watching you'll see Duncan break in transition and get the easy layup. As awesome as it is to see the 'big fella' run the floor, what impresses me is San Antonio dictating who will take the shot. It's not that Lance doesn't get the ball, it's that Xavier Munford is forced to shoot. This guy has played in 17 NBA games, and the Spurs will take him and his 41.6% shooting percentage taking long jumpers all day.
As the Spurs move forward, it will be interesting to see if they employ the full out denial against the likes of Durant and Westbrook, especially when only one is the on the floor. While it does require chasing someone around and potentially giving up a backdoor cut, it puts the onus on other players to make plays. When Westbrook goes to the bench and Durant is out there, who else can beat you if you are denying Durant the ball? We know Dion Waiters will shoot and the Spurs will welcome that. If Enes Kanter is out there the Spurs will have a field day on offense. Sometimes the best way to stop somebody is by preventing them from touching the ball.