While the regular season is a grueling slog that forces teams to think big picture, the NBA playoffs are a different beast. Each game becomes a chess match, where little strategic nuances can be the difference between success and failure. In these previews, we’ll take a look at one intriguing tactical quandary facing each team.
San Antonio Spurs
- Stopping Marc Gasol….in transition
When San Antonio started their incredibly successful run under Gregg Popovich in 1996, the NBA was really different. A big man like Gasol would have plodded down the court, ran to the block and waited for the ball to be thrown into him. In 2017, things work juuuuust a bit differently.
NBA offenses increasingly now play through what’s called the trail big -- or the last big man coming into the play. On most teams, that means getting into a drag screen or a quick reversal that flows into some other fun stuff. But thanks to a newfound skill for Gasol, the Grizzlies’ opponents now must deal with this:
For the Spurs, Gasol’s gunning from deep presents a real clash with their defensive ethos. San Antonio leads the NBA in defense because they get back in transition, keep their bigs back near the rim and don’t overextend themselves (and also they have that Kawhi Leonard guy). Gasol’s penchant for sinking 3’s as the trail bigs will force the Spurs big men -- particularly David Lee, Marc’s brother Pau and Dewayne Dedmon -- a little out of their comfort zone.
Instead of running back to the paint, they’ll have to diligently meet Gasol at the 3-point line. For most big men, this is a fish out of water effect as pretty much their entire basketball careers have had them run back to the rim in transition to protect the basket. And again, the Spurs have always possessed one of the most fundamental and conservative defenses in the league, so this idea of abandoning the rim because of a center must have Pop the purist cursing the basketball gods.
And it’s not just Gasol’s 3’s that are problematic. This stretch-effect also opens things up for Mike Conley and Co. to slice into the paint in transition and cause problems for a defense that spent the entire regular season being airtight. For a below average offensive team like Memphis (they finished 18th in efficiency this year), it’s generally good to avoid a set, San Antonio defense in the halfcourt. The Spurs know this and should do what they can to take away early, efficient shots.
So to avoid Memphis from grinding out enough points to make this a series, San Antonio needs to make sure their game plan accounts for Gasol’s newest trick.
- Cutting off the corner 3
Even before it was cool, the Spurs were the masters of the corner 3. Twenty years ago, NBA defenses had no idea of it’s value and were just fine with conceding what is now considered one of the most efficient shots in basketball. And even though analytical advances have woke teams up, it hasn’t stopped the Spurs from shooting a sizzling 42.8 percent from the corners as a team -- the highest mark in the league, per NBA.com. To make it worse for Memphis is that the San Antonio offense doesn’t just flip out a corner 3 here and there, it’s generated the 11th most in the league.
Clearly the Grizzlies need to shut off this facet of efficiency for the Spurs, but it’s often hard to link that objective to an actual tactical twist. What makes things worse for Memphis in that department is that San Antonio doesn’t just have one secret play that leads to these shots. The Spurs generate corner 3’s from post ups, transition pushes, pick-and-rolls and pretty much every other action in the team’s playbook. The root cause of corner 3’s is basically consistently, unselfish ball movement:
At the very end of that play, however, we see an area for Memphis to throw a wrench in the San Antonio corner 3 machine. In the above clip, a Laker defender is basically stuck guarding two Spurs at once -- Patty Mills and Kawhi Leonard. In the scramble, he rushes toward Mills one the wing who, in typical San Antonio fashion, makes the extra pass to Leonard and “Voila!” there’s your wide open corner 3. At this point, you have looked back at that play again and be wondering how the hell it’s possible to stop that open 3.
Well, unfortunately for the Grizzlies, “stopping” an open 3 isn’t going to happen. What Memphis can do, however, is dictate which type of open shot beyond the arc they want to give up. Against the Spurs, the Grizzlies need to have their defenders stuck in the above spot only stunt (basically fake a rotation) to the wing player (Mills in this case) and stay in the corner. A Spur like Mills will happily jack an open 3 from the wing, but, given the numbers, it’s actually a net win for the Grizzlies.
Even though they just drop to third in terms of accuracy, the Spurs “only” shoot 37.9 percent on 3’s above the break, per NBA.com. That’s nearly a full five percentage points lower than their corner 3 mark. In terms of points per possession, it’s going from a 1.28 mark on that corner attempt to a 1.13 mark from above the break. In a seven game series, where there’s wild variance, that could be enough of a swing maybe one game in Memphis’ favor.