The San Antonio Spurs will face the Memphis Grizzlies in the play-in tournament, a team that absolutely demolished their defense in the regular season. Memphis had the second highest offensive rating in the league against San Antonio, behind only the Nets, so it’s safe to say they know how to score against the Silver and Black.
The Grizzlies are a menace in transition, so the Spurs’ main focus should be on limiting their early offense, but if they manage to do that, they’ll have another tough assignment in the half court: stopping Memphis’ pick-and-roll game.
So let’s take a look at how San Antonio defends the pick-and-roll, why the Grizzlies have been able to score on them in the past, and what they could do to stop them from doing so this time.
The Spurs have the personnel but not the discipline
Dejounte Murray is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and Jakob Poeltl is one of the best defensive centers. With those two so often involved in pick-and-rolls, plus athletic wings providing help, the Spurs should not be bad at all at stopping that type of play. The problem is sometimes the communication isn’t there and the help defenders simply don’t always do what they are supposed to.
The main way the Spurs defend the pick-and-roll is by having the big man drop to contain a drive while the primary defender goes over the pick and recovers. It’s supposed to mostly yield mid-range jumpers, and when it’s executed well, it often does. For it to work, though, there has to be synergy between the two defenders. The big man can’t drop too far down, or the perimeter defender won’t be able to recover in time; the perimeter defender can’t take too long to recover, or the big man will find himself in a 2-on-1. Both scenarios happen a fair bit in San Antonio, but they are not the biggest issue.
The Spurs tend to struggle too often with help defense in the pick-and-roll because players either don’t know what they are supposed to do or fail to execute properly. To be fair, it’s all a bit complex.
On side pick-and-rolls, a third defender typically moves to the nail, which is located at the middle of the free throw line. That guy is supposed to help stop the drive if the ball handler gets to the middle or bump the big man, while at the same time not overcommitting to help and leaving his man open.
If the ball goes to the baseline instead of the middle of the floor, the defender on the weak side corner is the one who helps and the nail defender is often expected to close out to the corner if a pass comes. That’s typically called X-ing out.
Good defenses have those movements choreographed well. The problem is the Spurs have a lot of young players who are still trying to figure out the intricacies of NBA help defense, so there are often breakdowns.
San Antonio can defend the pick-and-roll well at times, but against teams that are adept at capitalizing on small mistakes, they often struggle.
Why the Grizzlies can take advantage so easily
The Grizzlies don’t have great pull-up threat, which is absolute poison against drop coverage, or elite floor spacing, but they do have Ja Morant. Morant is exactly the type of quick, dynamic ball handler that can take advantage of any minor misstep made by the two main defenders to get to the rim and finish or just trigger aggressive help defense and make the right pass. He did it again and again in the regular season matchups.
Even if the pick-and-roll defense is good, the Grizzlies have a lot of smart ways to get Morant an edge. They sometimes use double screens, to take away one extra help defender, and they can also use staggered screens to free him up. If the Spurs aren’t sharp, they can get confused and give Morant enough room for him to make something happen.
The Grizzlies also have good finishers and offensive rebounders in Jonas Valanciunas, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke, so if the defense gets too focused on stopping the drive, Morant — or Tyus Jones, when he’s on the court — can look to pass, knowing that their bigs will know what to do with the ball, or launch a floater and be confident that even if their shot misses, there will be someone there to recover it.
How the Spurs can stop them
Effort and focus will go a long way. Both should be expected, especially at such a crucial stance, but the Spurs have not always played hard or avoided mistakes during the season. They’ll need to in this game, because it’s the one thing they can control.
The primary defenders will have to fight through screens to stay close and be able to recover quickly, to allow the big to deny the pass, which should be the biggest concern. They, along with the rest of the team, will have to be willing to mix it up on the boards, because Morant tends to draw the attention of the big and throw the ball up for his screener, who follows him to the rim, to get a putback. It’s one of the reason why the Grizzlies led the league in second chance points. The Spurs cannot be content with forcing Morant or any other ball handler into misses on drives, but need to actually stay focused until they secure the defensive board.
Beyond that, the best way to neutralize Morant and make the Grizzlies’ offense stall is making him a jump shooter. It’s easier said than done, because Memphis knows how to get him paths to the rim by setting either very high or low screens that make going under them an issue, but if the Spurs can bait him into pull-up threes or at least contested floaters instead of drives to the rim, they’ll likely keep him in check.
The Spurs will have to do a lot to contain an opponent that has had their number on the offensive end this season if they want to stay alive. Doing a better job on the pick-and-roll is just one of them, but it might be among the most significant.
If San Antonio can slow the Grizzlies down on the break and take away one of their best weapons in the half court, advancing past the first game of the play-in tournament could be a realistic possibility.