As the last bit of summer gives way to fall, I’m dying for basketball to start again. Since the season doesn’t kick off until October, I spent some time watching the last handful of games from the end of the last season, and one play in particular caught my eye as being the kind of thing that could be the hallmark of this year’s team.
It was a defensive stand from the end of a must-win game against the Thunder on March 29th. Dejounte Murray’s defense on Russell Westbrook was excellent the entire game, as detailed by Tom Piccolo, but that’s not all that’s going on in this possession.
First, let’s set the scene. After building, then nearly giving away, an 8 point lead with less than 5 minutes to go, the Spurs were up 3 and the Thunder had the ball with 46 seconds left, when this bit of marvelous-ness occurred:
The Thunder run a 1-5 pick and roll just below the 3-point line near the top of the key. Adams lands enough of the pick to free Russ, but because LaMarcus Aldridge is essentially playing contain on the pick, he plants his left foot and is already accelerating towards the rim as soon as the pick connects. The extra moment he buys with his anticipation is an underrated aspect of defense, especially against players like Westbrook — and it’s probably the most important thing any Spur does on this play.
Aldridge’s positioning is textbook perfect. He’s low enough on the floor that he’s able to win the race to the rim, but still high enough that it doesn’t make sense for Russ to attempt to cross back into the center of the court. Russ prefers to attack, so that’s not an option he chooses often, and the play the Thunder are running isn’t designed for it. Still, it would have been devastating if he had. If Russ gets under Adams and into the paint, either Danny Green has to leave Paul George or Aldridge has to stay with Russ, leaving Murray on Adams as he dives into the post. That’s a choice between George open at the top of the key, or Murray pinned on Adams with Patty Mills guarding Corey Brewer in the near corner as the nearest help defender. Instead, Russ continues accelerating.
The angle of the pick, and the path he took around it, leaves him just a little farther to go than LMA, who is able to meet him before he gets a clean look at the rim. Unfortunately for the Thunder, while Aldridge was ready to go at the exact moment of the pick, Adams hesitated a beat before rolling to the rim. If he hadn’t, he’s likely alongside Murray when the pass is made, instead of just behind him, making it much more likely he’s able to secure the ball. He was also slowed just a bit by a little extra effort from Murray. You can see his right hand pushing/pulling on Adams’ left hip as they race to the rim.
Just before the pass, though, is the most critical moment of the whole play, and the only mistake the Spurs make, although it’s a calculated one. Mills feints a swipe at the ball as Russ drives by, leaving Brewer open in the corner. If Russ gets the ball to Brewer as Mills is leaning towards the rim, the Thunder would have had a wide-open corner 3 to tie the game. Of course, helping on a Westbrook drive is rarely the wrong thing to do, and Brewer is a career 28% 3-point shooter. Still, a wide-open 3, even from a poor shooter, would have been much better for the Thunder than what happened next.
Rather than make the easy pass to Brewer, Russ tries and fails to get to the rim, and finds himself stuck in the air with no good options.
Green has lost contact with Paul George at this point. Green’s still moving forward, but PG is balanced and facing the play. If Russ hadn’t contorted his body to try to get around LMA, he could’ve passed George open on the right wing. As is, he doesn’t have the leverage to put enough zip on the ball for a pass that long. At the last second, Russ flips up a lob to Adams. Since, like Aldridge, Murray never hesitated, he was able to stay in the play and get good position to deny the pass. He does just that, tipping it off the backboard and right to Patty, who secures the just before Adams can get to it.
One play never wins a game, but this is a great example of how much execution and hustle matter. When you do this for 48 minutes, you have a chance every night. One of the keys to this season for the Spurs will be how quickly their new players are able to exert this level of commitment and focus on every possession. It’s often difficult with young players because there is so much information to process at one time. Murray has already demonstrated that he’s capable of getting there, but it will be interesting to see how Lonnie Walker IV and Jakob Poeltl come along. The sooner they are able to contribute meaningful minutes in high-leverage situations like this, the higher the team’s ceiling will be.
It will also be interesting to see how much DeMar DeRozan can dial up his defensive effort and still maintain his offensive impact. He won’t be asked to shoulder as much of a load on the offensive end, and should play fewer minutes than he has in the last few years. If DeRozan can selectively lock in on defense like Murray and Aldridge on this play, it’s going to be quite a year for the Silver and Black.