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How the Spurs are turning defense into offense

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San Antonio’s commitment to getting easy points escalated against the Clippers.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Clippers Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs’ transition attack paved the way for another victory on Saturday night against the Clippers. The team started 18.5% of their offensive possessions with a transition play, their 2nd highest rate of the season, and scored 1.529 points per play on those opportunities, according to Cleaningtheglass.com (CTG). A lot of that damage was done during an early third quarter run built on solid defense and quick hands.

After trading buckets to start the second half, the Spurs defense held on 6 consecutive possessions, forcing 4 misses, 2 live ball turnovers, and a shot clock violation. Over that same 3 minute stretch, the team scored 12 points, turning a tie game into a double digit lead.

Much of it came down to sheer effort. Watch DeMar DeRozan on this play.

He beats Tobias Harris over Marcin Gortat’s screen the first time, absorbs the contact, and then still gets enough of himself between Harris and the re-screen to disrupt the attack. Once Harris recovers, he looks to snake back to the right side of the floor, but both Derrick White and Rudy Gay are there waiting on him. With LaMarcus Aldridge between Harris and the rim, he smartly decides to pull up from 14 feet.

But DeMar wasn’t done with this play yet, and he smothers the attempt from behind. The ball drops into Derrick’s waiting hands, and the Spurs take off down the court.

A minute later, the Spurs’ smart approach to smothering defense paid off again.

Watch it 5 times and pay attention to a different Spur every time.

Watch Derrick White make Shai Gilgeous-Alexander think about his ball-handling, stick on him into the post, then call out the back screen for Rudy. Derrick chips Danilo Gallinari on the way by, then hangs on the edge of the paint as SGA spaces out to the corner. He constantly checks his surroundings, watching for a down screen, guarding against a back cut, ready to help in an instant. He digs down on Gortat when LaMarcus helps on Gallinari’s drive, then moves back out looking for the next rotation, keeping his arms up ready to jump a pass.

Then take note of Rudy picking up Gallinari out above the three point line, fighting through a screen to deny deep position, then maintaining perfect position through all of Gallinari’s probes and fakes, eventually forcing him baseline, funneling him directly to LaMarcus at the rim.

Follow LaMarcus as he patrols the paint, wary of back screen and cutters, constantly resetting his 3 second clock and eager to help at the rim. His timing and positioning force Gallinari to throw the ball back out to the perimeter, even though there’s only 3 seconds on the shot clock.

Watch Bryn Forbes tailing Avery Bradley, swiping at the ball when he has it, ready to help off him when he doesn’t. Bryn almost gets caught on a back cut, but reacts just quickly enough to take away the opening. After Derrick helps on Gortat at the rim, Bryn picks up responsibility to close out on SGA on the wing, and Bryn runs him off the line, forcing him to put the ball on the floor with just 2 seconds left.

And finally, check out DeMar, who spends the entire play guarding the Clippers’ 2nd best offensive player, as he did for most of the game. Though Harris has very little role in the play, his off-ball movement keeps DeMar engaged, and DeMar sticks with him the entire time. Most impressively, DeMar even sticks with Harris when SGA catches on the wing. It would be tempting to help with Bryn so far away, but the choice between SGA, shooting 38.9% on 1.6 3PA/G, taking a wing three against a close out and Harris, shooting 42.5% on 4.6 3PA/G getting a wide open look from the top of the key is an easy one. DeMar makes the right decision, so SGA has no choice but to put the ball on the deck and try to make something happen.

More of that same awareness, and some quick hands, played an important role, too.

DeMar’s efforts to jump the pass, then recover to deny the dribble hand-off leave him behind the play, so Derrick stunts in to prevent the open three. SGA smartly cuts to the rim as soon as Derrick leaves him, but he catches the pass from Bradley with LaMarcus waiting on him, so he takes a dribble then tries to kick it out to Gortat. Unfortunately for him, Derrick not guarding anyone is almost a worse case scenario, because all he does is read the play and take it away. That’s exactly what he does here, tipping the pass and coming away with the steal.

He doesn’t take off right away. Derrick, as usual, is in no rush. He secures the ball and begins to move up court, taking the measure of the floor the whole way. He sees Rudy coming free on the left side and gets him the ball right on time.

Derrick’s next steal took a little longer to pay off, but ended with the same result.

Derrick gets switched onto Gallinari, but doesn’t give an inch of space, and when Gallinari goes by him, Derrick calmly pokes the ball away from behind. The Spurs don’t score on the initial break, but the Clippers’ defense is in scramble mode for the entire possession, making it easy for LaMarcus to get position and tip the ball out to Rudy. With as clear a runway as he’ll probably ever see, Rudy collects the ball and slams it home.

Not long ago, these types of possessions were going the other way, and a poor Spurs’ defense was completely unable to defend itself when it couldn’t get set. Now, their defense is allowing the team is put their opponents in that position far more often.

Since December 7th, the start of the home stand that turned this season around, the Spurs are slightly above league average in generating turnovers, at 14th, despite ranking 28th over their first 25 games, per CTG. The Spurs have increased their transition frequency at the same time, rising from 10.9% over the first 25 games to 13.1% over the last 3 weeks. That’s still 25th, but 25th is a lot better than a distant 30th.

Their next opponent, the Boston Celtics, will put this trend to the test. According to CTG, they allow the fewest transition plays in the league. If the Spurs can get easy points against them, they’ll likely be able to do it against anyone.