The San Antonio Get Back
How do you stop the most efficient offense in the league?
There’s no one way. A single brilliant maneuver isn’t going to be enough. You need hundreds of tiny details, each one covering a single permutation of a single play you might not even see, to add up to a dynamic, adjustable scheme. You have to drill that scheme, again and again, until all those details become instinct. And then everything has to translate from the controlled environments of practice courts and hotel ballrooms to the chaos of a live basketball game. Hopefully muscle memory, and some sideline prodding, is enough.
The Miami HEAT had their own issues during their loss in San Antonio, but we can’t let them distract from the defensive master class just operated by the Spurs. This was as close to a sustained playoff-level performance as you’re likely to see during the regular season.
All the bits and pieces from last season’s NBA Finals were present and accounted for. The great wall in front of LeBron James. The free-roaming zone defender when the ball was below the free-throw line. The suffocated passing lanes. The dearth of corner threes. The space-eating closeouts. Everything that accounted for the high-variance series of last June was put in play by Gregg Popovich, and the HEAT weren’t able to impose their will and get the shots they wanted nor were they able to hit the jumpers that the Spurs outright conceded. Miami didn’t help themselves with 21 turnovers and a number of rotational miscues that we hadn’t seen for the better part of a month, but the Spurs were the too often the ones directing traffic.
“They played me the same way they played in the Finals,” James said. “[They] went under all my pick-and-rolls and dared me to shoot.”
What do all the aforementioned tactics have in common? It all happens in the half-court.
The HEAT might have the most efficient half-court offense in the league according to Synergy Sports, but they still score over 20 points per 100 possessions more when they get out in transition. So, the Spurs took a page out of Erik Spoelstra’s book – in that it’s a core Miami tactic, as the strategy itself is far from a rarity for Popovich – and sold out the offensive glass in order to cut off the HEAT’s most precious commodity.
The Spurs didn’t just abstain from crashing the offensive boards, if a player wasn’t already near the paint as the shot went up then they outright avoided seeking out second chances. It didn’t matter if the shot went in or not. As the ball was in the air, multiple Spurs were on the get back trail.
So when James or Dwyane Wade tried to collect the miss and play with pace, the hydra was already crossing half-court. Waiting.
The geography of the floor determined who was getting back, but there was always more than one. Right corner three? The two players on the opposite wing were going in the other direction as the ball was released. Drive to the rim? The shooters in the either corner and the player at the top of the key weren’t even thinking about the paint. Sometimes the shooter himself was backpedaling before the fate of the shot had been determined.
If you were watching the broadcast, the fifth Spur often wasn’t even in the picture because he was already trotting back to the opposite end.
Even if the offense was flattened out along the baseline as the shot was taken, four players were beating the ball across mid-court. And all along, player communicated. Calling out assignments. Finding the ball. When someone pointed, someone else followed directions.
This is nothing out of the ordinary for the Spurs, or for the league. It’s been years since San Antonio, even playing Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter together, really chased offensive rebounds. If a guy isn’t in good position, then don’t crash and just get back. Last year the Spurs were second to last in offensive rebounding percentage and they’re again in the bottom third of the league this season. The HEAT, with the lowest offensive rebounding percentage in the league this season by design, often employ the same tactic to great effect.
A team can’t just choose to do this and expect it to work. It has to be done well. There aren’t one or two designated players always getting back. Assignments are dictated by where you are on the floor. If Duncan was above the free-throw line as the shot went up, he got back. If he was at the rim, he went for it. According to SportVU’s player tracking systems, only Duncan had more than two chances – with eight – to get an offensive rebound last night. The Spurs grabbed eight second possessions because they chose their spots wisely. Only Duncan was even semi-regularly within four feet of the missed shot.
When the strategy is used in concert with a prepared, disciplined half-court defense, then you can create some real trouble. All night, the HEAT tried to push off San Antonio misses before the defense was set. All night, they wound up running smack into resistance, forced to deal with the host of other Spurs tactics designed specifically to beat them. And so, the HEAT were left with their lowest offensive rating (87.1) of the entire season.
The HEAT could have helped themselves by turning the ball over less and hitting their jumpers. Even in the Finals, the Spurs weren’t this perfect in every game. But on Thursday night, these were San Antonio’s terms they were playing on. You can’t run if there’s nowhere there to run to.