Tales from the Sauna

San Antonio's New Approach to LeBron and Dwyane Wade

LeBron James
Photo Credit: Jesse D. Garrabrant

Nobody likes an asterisk, but there are rare occasions that call for them.

Not from a results point of view. The San Antonio Spurs played beautiful basketball, including just about as perfect a final five minutes as you’ll see at this level, en route to taking a 1-0 series lead over the Miami HEAT in the NBA Finals. There is nothing you can take away from them and what they earned.

The asterisk is for the validity of anything that happened from an analytical standpoint. Members of each squad had surely played in such temperate conditions before over the course of general existence – imagine playing in a Las Vegas gym for an AAU tournament in mid-July when the cool air is shut off – but it’s not what they play or practice in today. There’s no telling just how much heat-related mental fatigue played into the 41 combined turnovers, much less each slow or late rotation that caused a plethora of open threes and catches in the paint.

Precise execution led to Tim Duncan getting 12 catches within 12 feet of the rim (for 22 team points) and to the HEAT generating 27 uncontested jumpers, but we can’t say for sure whether or not those possessions would have played out the same way in a typical basketball environment.

“I feel part of our downfall in that game was mental and physical fatigue down the stretch,” Dwyane Wade said. “You know, rotations and things that we normally do weren’t done last night. It wasn't from not having the will or the want to do it.”

So let’s put aside the results for a moment and focus on what each team was trying to do. More specifically, how the Spurs were trying to defend.

How Gregg Popovich schemed for LeBron James and Wade a year ago has been well-covered. The Spurs hung a few feet back whenever Miami’s primary playmakers had the ball, going under just about every single screen in the series as they conceded jumpers and built a wall around the paint. It was, in a sense, aggressively conservative, and it took both players a little time to adjust.

“Their commitment to going under on pindowns (screens) was surprising,” Battier said before the series began. “They really committed to it to the point where [we were like], ‘You guys are really going under that down screen?’ [That’s] an area where most teams would have a faint heart to try and do that in a game, but they did it for pretty much the entire series.”

Thursday night was a step in a different, slightly more traditional direction.

To start, James and Wade weren’t given rights to their own personal space. There was little hang-back, little cushion and few if any outright conceded jumpers. Of the 35 shots the pair took in Game 1, 22 of them came when the defender was within four feet of the shot. Considering that that is more shots than they took in the paint, and some of their paint shots were uncontested, there are a good handful of contested mid-range jumpers in there.

But even on the shots SportVU logged as uncontested, Wade and James were only open because they made a move to get themselves open.

“We never really want anybody to take open jump shots,” Kawhi Leonard said. “We want to contest every shot.”

There’s a balance to strike, of course. The Spurs aren’t going to suddenly go chest-to-chest with James and Wade for an entire game. The difference in spacing that we’re talking about here is one, two or three feet.

“We want to approach this series like we approached the last series [against the Oklahoma City Thunder],” Danny Green said. “We feel like our defense is at our best when we’re more aggressive. We want to give them space and play them smart and not let them drive by us, but at the same time we want everybody on their team to feel us defensively. We want to get up in them a little bit. Just be active as a defense.”

And the appropriate spacing, as shown in the above image above, is different from Leonard to Green to Boris Diaw.

“[LeBron is] way faster than me, so I have to give him a little room,” Diaw said.

The second defensive shift on the San Antonio side was less subtle. Rather than going under almost all screens, the Spurs were going over the top and staying close to the ballhandler.

“We just buy into the gameplan,” Leonard said. “Being aggressive out there. Not trying to make it easy for anyone.”

While there’s too much evidence to the contrary, in one-game sample sizes when certain play-types only occur a few times – the James and Wade’s pick-and-roll usage was well below their norm, with James becoming more of a screen-setter than screen-user – you can sometimes talk yourself into certain wrinkles being born more of circumstance than preconceived strategizing.

That is until you see something like Tim Duncan closing hard on James at the three-point lane, something that rarely happened early in last season’s series.

As you see at the end of that animation, the cost of hard closeouts, a reduced cushion and going over the top of picks is that is opens the door for James and Wade to attack the rim. And they were more than willing to, taking 16 shots in the restricted area and, per SportVU, creating 19 team points off 15 dribble drives that started at least 20 feet from the rim.

“We’re going to make some adjustments in Game 2 to where [LeBron] won’t get to the rim as much. D-Wade as well,” Green said.

We use team points there because not everything was altered in San Antonio’s scheme. They still want to shut off the paint, and on a dribble drive they’ll pinch the middle of the floor. This, in turn, creates open looks from three, as the HEAT took their second-highest total of corner threes in a single game this year.

And when the HEAT space the weakside of the floor while James controls the ball, the Spurs will still send that LeBron Spy across the paint for the strong-side zone. Even without a drive, this creates a three with the right ball movement.

This is where we remind ourselves that we’re dealing with Gregg Popovich. Just when you think you have the answers, he changes all the questions. The Spurs may have stuck with similar tactics for most of the Finals a year ago, but that in no way precludes them from showering the HEAT in wrinkles after the tape tells the truth of Miami’s shot profile. Even within the game itself, the Spurs started switching pick-and-rolls against Wade and James more as things wore on – something we may see more of going ahead.

“I thought we made a good number of mistakes,” Popovich said. “I thought they missed some wide, wide open shots that they had, that scare you to death once you watch the film. That's not just blowing smoke or an exaggeration. There were about seven or eight wide open threes they had that just didn't go down.”

The trick for both the teams and the rest of us, then, is separating what is real from what came out of one of the strangest game environments in recent memory. The process seems to have changed on the San Antonio side for at least one game, and the exciting part is seeing what happens next.

Then again, the Spurs see things differently than the rest of us. To borrow a phrase from Erik Spoelstra, our truth, to those of us that watch, might be different from their truth.

“People say we let them shoot last year,” Diaw said. “It’s just not what we tried to do at all. We tried to disrupt them as much as possible.”

Statistical supports for this article provided by NBA.com, STATS LLC and Synergy Sports