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The kind of defensive mistake the Spurs need to avoid

With all the young (and new) faces in San Antonio, keeping the D on the same page will be a huge area of focus.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Clippers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

On April 3rd, in the middle of a playoff push, and coming off two important wins against the Thunder and Rockets, the Spurs played the Clippers in Los Angeles on the first night of a dreadful back to back that nearly cost them a playoff berth. The game was there for the taking, but San Antonio uncharacteristically failed to execute in crunch time. In particular, a failed defensive stand in the final minute allowed the Clippers to snag the win.

Lou Williams caught fire late, scoring 13 points in the 4th quarter alone, but the Spurs had just retaken the lead on a Patty Mills 3 pointer, 108-106, and the Clippers had the ball with 37 seconds to go.

Here’s the play followed by the breakdown.

Austin Rivers receives the inbound and dribbles from right to left across the center of the floor. After inbounding the ball, Lou weaves through screens from Tobias Harris and DeAndre Jordan en route to the opposite wing, but Danny Green navigates the picks effectively and arrives to Williams just as he receives the pass from Austin. The play has barely begun, but Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili are already late.

Austin has delivered the ball to Lou, and is cutting back to the 3-point line just above the break on the opposite side of the floor, but Patty is still leaning towards Williams. Meanwhile, in a screen-the-screener action, DeAndre is setting a pick on Manu to free up Tobias for a screen on Danny. Tobias is already over the top of DeAndre’s screen with a clean line, and Manu is on the other side of both DeAndre and LaMarcus.

Austin is well ahead of Patty. This isn’t part of the Clippers’ play design, it’s just a late reaction, and it’s a crucial mistake by Mills. Patty sees Tobias coming to set a screen with Manu nowhere to be found, and quickly finds himself in no-man’s land as he trails out after Austin while paying attention to Tobias. Down low, LaMarcus has set an outstanding moving screen on Manu. It’s clear LaMarcus expected Manu to cut between him and DeAndre, while Manu was expecting LaMarcus to stay attached to DeAndre. The end result is that Manu is, at least momentarily, out of the play.

Because Patty is still in no-man’s land, Manu sprints out towards the pick and roll. If Patty had committed to helping on Lou, Manu almost certainly would have changed course out to Austin. Just as Manu arrives, Patty commits as well, leaving 3 Spurs guarding Lou, and none within 15 feet of Austin.

Patty rushes over to close out, but it’s too late, and Austin nails a wide open 3-pointer to take the lead 109-108 with 29 seconds left.

This is a good play call by the Clippers, especially given how hot Williams was that night. The Spurs were clearly a little gun-shy of letting him shoot again, and it showed in how both Patty and Manu focused on stopping his drive. The Clips did a great job of taking advantage of that, but there’s nothing especially challenging about the coverage here. There are several screening actions leading up to the main event, the pick and roll between Lou and Tobias, but none of the setup action constituted a real threat, and the Spurs should have been able to stay in good position throughout.

If Patty had stayed with Austin from the beginning of the play, he’s not stuck in between Austin and Lou after the pick, and Manu is probably able to recover in time to stop the drive. Lou might get a 20-footer off the dribble, but that’s a better shot to give up than a wide-open 3-pointer for a player shooting nearly 38% from 3 on the year, especially since the Spurs were up 2. Danny would have most likely read the switch and stayed with Tobias while Manu picked up Lou. The Spurs should have been fine with that.

More importantly, Manu and LaMarcus have to negotiate that screen-the-screener action cleanly. They both commit so fully to their decisions – LaMarcus giving space between he and DeAndre, and Manu trying to go around LaMarcus – that it’s hard to tell who was right or wrong. Either way, when your own players are knocking each other out of a play just 4 seconds into it, you’re not going to be successful very often.

Looking forward to this season, the Spurs are going to experience these types of errors in execution more often than previous seasons, especially early in the year. The Spurs are replacing over 38% of their minutes from last year, the 2nd highest of Coach Pop’s tenure, and much of that will go to young, developing players. Expect the loss of continuity to result in mistakes. It will take time for the team to gel, and that may present a problem, given how competitive the west will be this year. If the team gets off to a slow start while working to integrate all the new pieces, it will be difficult to recover.

The errors on this play, though, weren’t growing pains. They were symptomatic of a team that was exhausted, but still fighting for their playoff lives every night. With so much swirling around, both on the court and off, it’s impressive that they were able to close the season as well as they did. There shouldn’t be any of that this year, and the return of the boring, lunch-pail-carrying Spurs should eventually mean a return to the immaculate late-game execution of years past.