The Great Wall of San Antonio

by Couper Moorhead

The Great Wall of China is one of the most massive man-made structures on the planet, one of the world’s true wonders in every sense of the word. Regardless of how much choice the workers had in the matter – this isn’t the place to get into that – the wall is the culmination of centuries of labor. People were born at the wall, and that is where they spent their lives. Millions had a hand in its construction, more than half the population of this gigantic country going brick by brick, all because of how the powers-at-be decided to protect their way of life.

The wall itself is actually a network of different sections, but some estimates put its length at over 5,500 miles. That’s almost enough to go from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic and back again in the United States. But here’s the thing: the Chinese border is almost 14,000 miles long.

The wall only covers about 40 percent of the border.

For China, this was just fine. The most direct threats to the country were to the north, so that’s where they built the wall. Sure, anyone could walk across the border in the less-protected section, but if their deadliest enemies wanted to attack then they were in for one heck of a march. The imperial dynasties spent resources on isolating a foe, and for that the country prospered.

The San Antonio Spurs know who is threatening them as well. They know how good LeBron James is. They know how many awards he’s won and records he’s set. They know what James can do with the ball, so in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Spurs collected their resources and built a wall in front of him at every opportunity – opening up other spots on the floor in the process.

No matter where James went, there was one Spur, then two Spurs, then three Spurs and soon enough if the ball stuck in one place too long James was staring at an entire team bent on keeping him away from the rim. This dedication to thwarting James’ penetration created other opportunities for Miami as the team enjoyed 27 spot-up opportunities and enough open shots that the HEAT could have easily won this game on those looks alone.

"I was able to still find my guys for some shots," James said. "We missed some shots. We had some wide open clips where I had two defenders guarding me. Two plays in the third quarter I was able to find Rio for two open threes that he just missed, two great shots. I found CB for four really good looks that he missed, that he's capable of making.

"My guys are open. I've got this far with them, I'm not going to just abandon what I've been doing all year to help us get to this point. So I know those guys will be ready to shoot again once they're open."

But the HEAT did not win, and until San Antonio’s wall-building proves to be a fatal strategy we can expect them to continue deploying the same schematic.

Let’s take a closer look.

The Train Meets the Mountain

We don’t need to explain why the HEAT’s transition game is one of the most efficient weapons in basketball. You’ve seen it in motion. You know what can happen. You know what the HEAT look like when the ball comes off the rim, James grabs it and three players are off to the races in a triangle formation.

The Spurs care, but their strategy against Miami’s transition game isn’t specific to Miami at all. All season long, Gregg Popovich has deemphasized the offensive rebound – in a style also employed by Doc Rivers and Erik Spoelstra – to keep his players getting back on defense and stopping easy, opportune fast-break scores. There’s nothing especially complicated about it, either. If you’re already in position to possibly get a rebound when the shot goes up, you can stay there. If you aren’t in position, don’t waste time trying to fight box-outs – just get your butt back on defense. Popovich surely drills this defense in practice, but in the end the execution of it comes down to awareness and prioritizing.

Well, effort also helps. Nothing kills transition defense like big men that can’t beat the ball down the court, but fortunately for San Antonio they have Tim Duncan. And if Duncan isn’t going to get the rebound, he’s turning and sprinting to the rim.

If the ball has yet to cross the mid-court line, it doesn’t matter to Duncan. He’s getting to the paint before you do and can adjust once he’s reached his destination. He was called for a blocking foul in the above video, but the point is that Duncan was there. One short sprint, and he’s in position to impact the ball. That’s what Popovich wants, and Duncan complies.

Then, the rest of the team follows suit. Shot up, get back.

No matter how long the rebound or how hard James, Dwyane Wade, Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers pushed the ball, the Spurs got back before them. The HEAT scored nine points in transition in the game, but two were in the game’s first minute when Wade found a cutting lane through San Antonio defenders in the paint and six more came during a second-quarter stretch when the HEAT put their collective heads down and charged the rim.

But that was it. Even when they scored, the HEAT were scoring over defensive bodies. Even when Duncan was caught beneath the rim on a long rebound, the Spurs sealed off the paint on the other end.

Spurs Transition Defense

This isn’t going to change because this is what Popovich does. This is San Antonio’s identity. The HEAT can be as aggressive as they want, but the Spurs aren’t going to give up anything on the break. Only one solution is readily available, and that’s to force more than four turnovers over the course of an entire game. The Spurs turn the ball over on about 15 percent of their possessions, but in Game 1 only 4.5 percent of their possessions ended in turnovers. Impressive, but this is unsustainable.

A more bountiful turnover harvest will make life in transition easier, but against the Spurs it’s never going to be easy.

The LeBron Wall

Four series deep into these playoffs, James has seen just about every defense in the league designed specifically to stop him. The Chicago Bulls turned Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson into linebacker spies as they played the part of a one-man zone whenever James had the ball outside of the paint. The Indiana Pacers didn’t zone as much as Chicago, but they had Roy Hibbert to root in front of the rim and discourage face-to-face challenges. Slightly different strategies, both, but what each had in common was a trust in the big men to contain dribble penetration and protect the rim while giving up as few open perimeter looks as was humanely possible.

The Spurs don’t have quite the same luxuries as those teams. Tim Duncan is a brilliant defender, but he doesn’t have the manic foot speed of Noah nor the pure mass of Hibbert. As such, while the Spurs run a scheme that could easily transform into more of a Chicago-Indiana look, their strategy for discouraging James from attacking the painted area relies a bit more on the entire team.

"We try to do a little bit of everything," Popovich said. "Sometimes it means getting up into him. Sometimes it means backing off. Sometimes it means fronting him. Sometimes it means playing behind. It's just important to show a little bit of variety so somebody doesn't get used to one thing."

As a team, brick by brick, the Spurs build a wall in front of James whenever he is a threat. And James is a threat whenever the ball is in his hands.

There are a couple different ways this philosophy presents itself. The Spurs use a strongside zone a la Chicago in the right situation, as they did here when Tiago Splitter drew James on a switch:

Kawhi Leonard Zone

But San Antonio actually zoned with their guards more often than with their big men, allowing Duncan and Splitter to manage their three-in-the-key count on the weakside of the paint, ready to pounce whenever James made his move. So instead of that second defender zoning James from the block, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili were dancing around the free-throw line in hopes of making James choose the outer route to the rim.

Spurs High Zone

Those are some particular examples, but Popovich’s plan wasn’t particular at all. It was all-encompassing. The moment James even thought about going in the general direction of the rim – off a high screen, along the sidelines, from the elbow or the blocks – there was that Spurs wall.

Spurs Wall

"They shrunk the floor a lot and they put five, four, at times they triple teamed me in the post," James said. "Do the math. If I have three guys on me, [that's] four against three or four against two on the back side. Guys are open, and I believe in my teammates that they're going to make the right play after that."

We’re being a little selective with these possession images to give you the best idea of what the Spurs are doing, but that’s in part because the defense was selective itself. The Spurs didn’t just stand in place and allow James to pick them apart. They waited for the right moment to wall up, showed James the look and if the possession continued they dispersed to find shooters. It didn’t always work as the HEAT made eight threes and James had 10 assists, but James only had five attempts at the rim.

And even when James did get to the rim, he had to find a way to punch right through the heart of the wall and take advantage of a slow rotation or two.

Again, the HEAT’s arsenal is far too vast for San Antonio’s wall to provide total coverage. Every time you overload one part of the floor another zone is going to open up. If Chris Bosh makes half of his jumpers in Game 2, as he’s more than capable of doing, he could reduce the wall to ruins and force an adjustment. If James hits more than one jumper – this was just the fifth time all year he only made one jumper on at least five attempts – then maybe the Spurs have to play up on him a little more rather than hanging back in the paint.

If. If. If. These are things that could happen. What already happened is that the Spurs won Game 1 by cutting off the HEAT in transition and building a wall in front of LeBron James. And it’s going to be that way until the HEAT do something about it and find other ways past San Antonio’s borders. That’s just how the playoffs work, and fortunately we should have plenty of time to see how this series plays out.