Early in the 4th quarter of the Spurs victory over the Mavericks on Wednesday night, the Mavs made a run. After going down by 18 on a Davis Bertans three, they scored on 5 straight possessions to pull within 5 points in a game the Spurs needed to win to avoid another first round playoff matchup with the Warriors.
The run highlighted many of the defensive weaknesses that have plagued the Spurs all season long, but it started innocuously enough, with Dorian Finney-Smith drawing a switch and attacking the basket against Jakob Poeltl.
The Mavs force the switch with a Spain pick and roll, leaving Jakob on Finney-Smith at the top of the key. Jakob gets himself out just a little too far when he thinks Finney-Smith is going to pull up from the mid-range, giving up a lane to the rim, but he recovers well and forces Finney-Smith to make a difficult shot.
This play, in and of itself, isn’t a big deal, but it very obviously affected the Spurs’ defense a few plays later. But first, the Spurs gave up a pair of easy buckets in transition because they lacked discipline on the other end of the floor.
On the first, the Spurs run their double drag and Patty Mills hits Jakob rolling to the basket. Rather than pull up short for the floater, Jakob leaves his feet, thinking there will be a shooter on the left side to kick it out to. But Davis Bertans has lifted all the way to the top of the key. Fortunately, Jakob is able to hang in the air long enough to throw it his way. Davis attacks and misses the contested layup. At this point, it’s just a bad offensive possession, but Marco Belinelli makes it worse.
Despite being at the top of the floor when the shot goes up, meaning it’s his job to prevent a run out, Marco trails in after the play, allowing Courtney Lee to jog down the floor into an open layup.
On the second, Rudy Gay drives from the left corner and attempts to dunk over a pair of Mavs’ defenders, but Salah Mejri blocks him at the rim and Finney-Smith comes down with the rebound. Again, nothing more than an unproductive offensive possession at this point, but then Patty goes for the sneaky steal.
He misses this time, and that puts him well behind the play, leaving the rest of the Spurs in a 4 on 5 until he catches up. A quick drive, kick out and swing later, the Mavs get an open corner three for Ryan Broekhoff.
At this point, despite not having made any actual serious missteps on the defensive end, the Spurs’ defense was on tilt, trying so hard to make a play and get a stop that they were bound to make a mistake. And on the next two possessions, they did.
First, the Mavericks used a dribble hand off to draw another switch between Rudy and Jakob.
Apparently this is such an enticing mismatch that Finney-Smith is comfortable waving everyone else off to go one-on-one. Expecting a drive, Davis and Rudy switch responsibilities on the left side of the court. Davis would typically help off the low man, but recognizing that Rudy is a better help defender and that Mejri isn’t a three point threat, Davis steps out and Rudy drops down almost into the paint.
Jakob should probably have tried to push Finney-Smith toward the left side of the floor, directly into Rudy. The kick out pass, in that case, would’ve gone to Mejri, who’s hit a grand total of 11 threes this season. But Jakob plays it straight, ready to stay on Finney-Smith’s hip no matter which way he goes and comfortable, for obvious reasons, with contesting whatever shot he puts up.
Patty, on the other hand, still has Finney-Smith’s last layup playing in his head, and is a little too anxious to help. He creeps in much too far, so Finney-Smith whips a pass to Jalen Brunson on the right wing. It’s a very good pass that leads him toward the arc and away from Patty. Brunson knocks down the three, shrinking the lead to eight and forcing Coach Pop to call timeout.
Despite coming out of the huddle looking much more locked in, the Spurs were still unable to score as Patty bricked a floater and Jakob mistimed his jump for the offensive rebound. In a dramatic change from just a minute earlier, though, the entire team hustled back down the floor.
Jakob deflects the early lob attempt, but it goes straight to Lee in the corner and the Mavs reset so Trey Burke can work the pick and roll with Mejri at the top of the floor. Burke puts Patty in jail, drawing a little too much attention from Derrick White who turns his head for a second too long. Finney-Smith dives to the basket behind him and DeMar DeRozan helps off Lee in the corner to prevent the layup.
Derrick reacts quickly, recovering back into position to disrupt any pass, but with DeMar already in the paint, he probably should have switched out to Lee. He’s a second late getting out, though, and Lee nails the corner three, cutting what had been a 22 point lead early in the 3rd quarter down to just 5.
Derrick more than made up for that mistake over the next few minutes as he led the team back to a double digit lead, but that they needed to reassert control over a game they appeared to have comfortably in hand is concerning. The issue has plagued the team all year, but in this game, so close to the playoffs and with the stakes so very clear, it’s difficult to explain this kind of loss of focus.
Yes they pulled it out, and no the game was never really in doubt, but it’s hard to imagine how big a lead this team would need to have for it to feel safe at this point. They always seem to be just on the edge of collapse, even when they’re playing well. For the most part, that’s probably a result of having to walk a tight rope on the defensive end.
With multiple defensively limited personnel on the floor most of the time, the team has to be essentially perfect in their communication and execution. They have no margin for error, and when they also fail to get back and gamble for low percentage steals, the points can pile up in a hurry.