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How the Clippers zone defense forced the Spurs into bad decisions

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The Spurs actually scored at a decent rate last night — when they got a shot up.

BASKET-NBA-MEX-PHOENIX-SANANTONIO Photo by PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images

When the Spurs weren’t turning the ball over in their Saturday night loss the to the Clippers, they actually scored relatively well. Against a very good defense, the Silver and Black managed to put up 109 points on the 86 possessions where they got a shot up. Of course, that doesn’t matter to the overall result, and the team’s 18 turnovers, including 11 of the live ball variety, went a long way towards putting the game out of reach before it had even reached the final frame.

That they were still able to score so efficiently — 111.0 points per 100 possessions before garbage time — could point to other facets of the game as the key problem. Transition defense would be a good place to start, as would defensive rebounding and how to help and rotate out of a double team. There’s certainly no denying that the team struggled in multiple areas. One of the easier places to look for improvement, though, is protecting the ball.

While the Spurs struggled to switch back and forth between attacking the Clippers’ man defense and their zone, there really isn’t much conceptual difference in the two. The Clippers are long, athletic and disciplined. They stay at home, but are always a half step away from the passing lane. Exploiting the zone requires a different offensive approach, but in both cases it’s the Clippers’ players that make the defensive scheme work, not the other way around.

Here, for example, are the Spurs making the exact same mistake against both.

If you can’t tell which clip is man-to-man and which is zone, don’t worry, there’s very little difference. The Clippers’ zone appears to work on a match up basis, giving them a ton of flexibility to shift and adjust as the possession develops. They can do that because they are an excellent help and recover team that communicates extraordinarily well, regardless of whether they are playing man or zone, frequently passing responsibility from one player to another without giving up even a momentary seam. Consider Dejounte Murray’s options in the first clip or Rudy Gay’s in the second. At the moment each determines that their drive isn’t going anywhere, who’s open?

Could Dejounte try to fling a cross court pass over Paul George to DeMar DeRozan in the corner? Maybe, but that’s risky, too. A throwback to Bryn Forbes at the top of the key would be safer but wouldn’t really advance the play very much, though Bryn could potentially swing it to DeMar immediately for a chance to attack a close out. Trey, on the other hand, looks open. But Leonard is right where he supposed to be, forcing Dejounte to pick the ball up but able to get a paw into the passing lane, which is exactly what he does.

At this moment, there’s nothing open. Rudy needs to either pick it up or pull it out. With Lou Williams directly in his path and Derrick White fading to the corner, it seems, at least for a moment, like Derrick might be able to get baseline, so Rudy tries to sneak it by. Like Leonard, Williams anticipates the pass and takes it the other direction.

That both occurred so early in the shot clock is symptomatic of a team that was pressing on the offensive end. Clearly uncomfortable against the Clippers’ defense, the Spurs became both overly tentative and too aggressive all at once, passing up open shots to find better ones but willing to drive into and attempt to pass through a thicket of waiting defenders to make a play.

Zones often have that kind of impact in the NBA, though they are typically used more sparingly. The Spurs, however, seem to have a weakness in that area, frequently needing multiple looks at the zone before adjusting to a more appropriate mode of attack. Still, a handful of turnovers didn’t create a 25 point lead all by themselves, so it’s not like making better decisions on these plays would’ve changed the outcome of the game. But this is one easy place to start for a team that has a whole lot to work on.