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How the Spurs pick-and-roll defense gave up easy points to the Lakers bigs

Even if the Spurs lacked a big who could defend Davis, their scheming still could have been better.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Lakers Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs had no answer for Anthony Davis in their Sunday afternoon loss. The Lakers’ big man ran roughshod over whatever defenders were in his path en route to 34 points on 24 shots with 15 rebounds and 6 assists. His performance wasn’t exactly unexpected though, as the Spurs center rotation currently consists of only Drew Eubanks and Thaddeus Young. Each brings valuable talents to the table, but defending Anthony Davis one-on-one certainly isn’t among them.

To be fair, there are very few defenders in the league who can, but it’s also fair to say neither Drew nor Thad should bear the brunt of the blame for Davis’ fireworks. The Spurs’ inability to stop the Brow was much more of a team effort. A pair of back-to-back possessions midway through the 2nd quarter made that painfully clear. The first came on a sidelines out of bounds play with 6:34 to go.

There’s no trickery here, nothing done to set up the defense, no misdirection or off-ball action. It’s just a straight up pick-and-roll at the top of the key going towards the right side of the floor. The Lakers have Wayne Ellington in the strong side corner with Rajon Rondo in the weak side corner and Carmelo Anthony on the weak side wing. Doug McDermott is defending Malik Monk, who has the ball, and Thad is guarding Davis as he sets the screen.

Doug lets Monk use the screen, intending to stay attached to his hip while Thad drops into the paint to both deny an open lane to the rim and try to deter a pass to Davis. Unsurprisingly, Doug can’t quite keep up with Monk and once he can see the back of Monk’s jersey, he switches onto Davis, prompting Thad to shift fully over to Monk. Against a lot of bigs, Doug’s positioning would be less of a concern, but against Davis, he’s beat. The Spurs’ only chance at this point is that Thad can deter or deflect the lob or for someone else to meet Davis in the paint.

It’s common in the NBA for the low man on the weak side, Dejounte Murray in this case, to have that responsibility. Keita Bates-Diop would then pick up which ever of the two men on the weak side receives the kick out pass and then Dejounte would recover to the other, hopefully in time to shut down the Lakers’ advantage on the play. That doesn’t appear to be the Spurs’ game plan here, as Dejounte is very clearly aware of the action and waits until the last moment to contest the lob. It looks like the Spurs’ intended to guard the pick-and-roll action straight up, that is by not providing any help to the two men responsible for the offensive players involved in the action. The low man in that scheme is only there to help once the pass is made.

If that’s the case, they may want to reconsider. Results aside, it should be relatively easy to anticipate that a pick-and-roll with Doug on the ball is going to result in a switch, and him defending a lob to Davis from behind is not a good outcome. On the next play, though, the Spurs found themselves in an even worse position.

There is much more to this play than the previous action, but the breakdown is essentially the same. The Spurs are matched up better this time, with Dejounte on Monk and Doug on Ellington, but the Lakers use a little three-man action on the left side of the floor to mix up the match ups and get a pick and roll on the left wing with an empty strong side corner. That gives Davis a wide open runway to the rim once the Spurs pick-and-roll defense fails again.

The key is Anthony’s curl over Davis and cut down the center of the lane. With Dejounte defending the cut, his back is to the action, so despite being the closest defender to the rim, he’s unable to meet Davis in time to prevent the dunk. But, just like on the last play, it doesn’t appear the Spurs were planning for that kind of help. Keita appears to have been in decent position to stay with Monk and challenge a floater or pull-up, especially given his length, but Thad switches onto Monk anyway. That cuts off his penetration, but since Keita isn’t attached to Davis’ hip, there’s an open lane for the pocket pass, which produces the easy dunk. You can see Dejounte signaling with his hands after the play, likely trying to reinforce the coverage so that everybody’s on the same page.

These breakdowns weren’t an isolated issue either, as the Spurs struggled to contain the pick-and-roll throughout the first half. Should you have the stomach for it, here’s a compilation of four more easy Lakers buckets scored against this same coverage. Miscues like these are a key reason why the Spurs’ halfcourt defense has struggled so far this year, allowing 93.8 points per play, per Cleaning the Glass, which is the 10th worst in the league. It would likely be better with a healthy Jakob Poeltl, but relying on talent to cover up for questionable schemes and poor execution is not very Spurs-like.

Indeed, it’s unclear why the Spurs would choose to play this type of defense against Davis, unless they were more afraid of the Lakers’ shooters than the damage he could do in the paint. On a night where the Lakers shot 15/31 from deep, perhaps that makes some sense. Another explanation might be that the team is uncomfortable with the current lineup’s ability to help, rotate and recover consistently, and this defensive scheme was an attempt to simplify things on that end of the court. Either way, it doesn’t matter what pick-and-roll defense the team tries to play if they don’t execute.