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Spurs Playbook: How the Magic cut off the Spurs pick-and-roll

The blueprint for slowing down San Antonio’s bread and butter, and how they can counter.

NBA: Orlando Magic at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Since Victor Wembanyama made the move to center, the San Antonio Spurs have been an effective pick-and-roll team. The two-man game of Devin Vassell and Wembanyama is one of San Antonio’s most effective offensive actions. Tre Jones runs the PnR quite well himself. Yet, on Wednesday night against the Orlando Magic, the Spurs struggled to find Wemby rolling to the basket, only scoring .5 points per possession in the action.

The Magic are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Their talent on that end is great, with guys like Jalen Suggs, Jonathan Isaac and Franz Wagner making a big difference. It was their scheme, however, that ultimately got Wembanyama and the Spurs out of their offensive rhythm. Check out this clip below from the first possession of the game and ask yourself what stands out.

Orlando softly doubles Jones off the screen, and the rest of the Magic pack the paint to prepare for Wembanyama’s roll to the hoop. Look at how little space Wemby has to operate.

Sochan is shooting 37.3% from three on the season, but because of his slower release, Wagner can dig further in on Wembanyama and still close out on Sochan. With Markelle Fultz attacking Jones hard, it’s even more difficult for Jones to make the skip pass to either Sochan or Julian Champagnie for a three.

Here is where a PnR handler who is more of a threat to score off the bounce than Jones could open this play up. If Jones attacks Wendell Carter Jr. a bit harder and gets him on his heels, maybe Wemby can get a deeper roll and a better look closer to the rim. Instead, Jones picks up his dribble and gives the Magic a chance to recover to Wemby on the short roll. Yet it’s hard to fault Jones too much for running the play like this, as it’s clearly designed to get Wembanyama the ball.

The second trip down the Spurs go back to the pick and roll, this time out of a handoff from Sochan to Jones.

Again we have the same set up, just with a different action to get into it. Sochan is on the wing while Wembanyama and Jones operate the high PnR. This time Fultz goes under, so Jones quickly reverses it to the open Sochan on the wing. Wagner can move from the nail to Sochan before he can get a shot up.

These two plays come down to personnel. Sochan has not proven enough as a floor spacer to demand Wagner stay close to him here. If that’s Doug McDermott, or Vassell, maybe it’s a different story. I think it makes more sense to swap Sochan with either Champagnie or Vassell in this action. Put a shooter on the wing who makes Wagner have to respect that skip pass, or a reversal in the short roll.

This also lets Sochan operate as a spacer/cutter from the corner. We see Champagnie hard cut on the baseline after the reversal is made. Sochan is a better cutter and finisher. The corner three is an easier look for him right now than from the wing. He’s just going to be more effective from that spot than at the wing.

Now look at the first possession to start the second half.

Vassell handles the ball from the left wing, this time the Magic are in a hard drop coverage, with WCJ playing the nail at the free throw line. Champagnie rises from the corner, leading Wagner into Wembanyama. Sochan and Jones (the Spurs two worst shooters in this lineup) space the opposite side. The result is... five Magic defenders with a foot in the paint.

A few things here. Champagnie doesn’t need to rise to the wing in this situation. He can stay in the deep corner, drawing Wagner out of the play, even if doing so compromises the Spurs’ floor balance for a few seconds. It looks like the Spurs emphasized this spacing at practice Friday morning.

Personnel plays a big part here, too. Champagnie has to be on the strong side corner to prevent Wagner from tagging Wembanyama, but that means Sochan and Jones are the spacers on the weak side of the floor, so Paolo Banchero and Suggs can just turn their backs on them completely. The Spurs shoot 34.5% from three as a team, so it’s not like they have a lot of options, but they would ideally have at least one good shooter on the strong side and one on the weak side.

Until the Spurs get more reliable shooters on the roster, this is going to be an effective way to defend the pick and roll. Teams will be able to pack the paint on them if they have the size and versatility to do so. A team like the New Orleans Pelicans may have a harder time playing this kind of defense with their slower bigs, like Jonas Valanciunas, and offensive-minded guards like C.J. McCollum.

It will be interesting to watch how Gregg Popovich tweaks this action so teams can’t just pack the paint on Wembanyama. Maybe Jones and Vassell will be the ones to adjust, attacking hard off the screen or getting to pull-up jumpers. Watch how the Spurs run the pick and roll over the next few games.