Well, I guess I was a little optimistic with that Warriors in Six prediction, wasn’t I? Who would have thought that the Spurs could beat this red-hot Warriors team, with a half-dead Manu Ginobili? Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, that’s who. The Spurs showed their championship pedigree in this game. Starting with the head of the snake, their head coach, who demonstrated once again why he is one of the best to ever stalk the NBA hardwood.
These are a few of the adjustments that Pop has made in this series, and in this game in particular, that allowed the Spurs to steal this Game 3 on the Warriors home court:
1) Go Big or Go Home: In my preview to this game, I predicted that Pop would return Tiago Splitter to the starting lineup, and fairly accurately forecast the many likely results of this move. Rather than restate them in depth here, I’ll let you check out my preview if you’re interested.
But here’s the pocket version:
The defense and rebounds obsessed Warriors head coach matched up big with Splitter and Duncan, by moving Ezeli into the starting lineup, and Draymond Green out. And there went the Warriors’ fast break, there went their spacing, there went their ability to get Curry and Thompson open looks. A 23 point first quarter was the natural result, that left the Warriors fighting from behind the whole game.
On the other side of the court, the Spurs used their big lineup to squeeze the air out the ball, control the Warriors fast break, and limit the Warriors possessions.
2) Eliminate the Bonner-Draymond Green mismatch that hurt the Spurs, and create the Diaw-Green mismatch in the Spurs favor:
Bonner against Green didn’t work for the Spurs, so Pop immediately went away from it. He forced Green out of the starting lineup, and matched up Boris Diaw against him on the second unit.
You saw the result. Diaw took Green down into the low post for three buckets. Eliminated Green’s quickness advantage, and exploited his size deficiency.
Bonner saw some minutes, but only against bigger players (like Bogut, Lee and Landry), that he could both defend and on offense, pull out of the lane to guard him at the three point line. He didn’t knock down his open threes in this game, but if he had, his minutes would have been effective.
3) Defense on Stephen Curry: The ESPN crew noted that Curry hasn’t been shooting well since his 54 minute Game 1, and wondered if it took too much out of him. Mark Jackson stated post-game that “it’s a make or miss league,” and Curry and Thompson just missed shots.
What has happened to Curry, as I noted in my recap of the last game, is that Pop made a brilliant adjustment to his defense. He is no longer allowing Curry to set up camp at the three point line, either in isolation or in pick and roll. The Spurs are forcing him to either give up the ball, or dribble into two point territory.
How are they doing this? Not by blitzing, which was the strategy employed by George Karl, that Curry and the Warriors ultimately beat with a spread floor and Curry’s great playmaking ability.
Tony Parker, who opened the first and third quarters on Curry, is picking him up above the three point line, and forcing him side-to-side. This denies Curry his favorite shot, the step-back.
Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are picking him up somewhat later, but also forcing him side-to-side, instead of face-guarding. This forces Curry to drive the ball, and as soon as he nears the basket, a Spurs big man steps up to block his path.
On pick and roll, and this was new this game, the Spurs big men weren’t exactly blitzing, but they weren’t sagging off either. They were expecting Curry to pull up for the jumper, and they were right in his face when he complied.
Curry missed a few open shots in this game, but in reality got very few open looks. The Spurs were totally focused on denying his three point shot.
Defense on Klay Thompson: Klay was guarded extremely closely by Green and Leonard in this game. Unlike in the last game, they never left him open, and their length made it tough for him. As a result, like Curry, he wound up forcing some bad shots.
Squeezing the Air out of the Ball: On offense, the Spurs squeezed the air out of the ball, playing deliberate half-court offense to slow the tempo of the game. They pounded the ball inside, and attacked the offensive boards. Their great floor balance allowed them to play great transition defense.
Running Curry and Thompson ragged: In the course of running their offense, the Spurs made sure to use Parker and Green to run Curry and Thompson through multiple screens, every trip down.
Denying the transition three: Can you remember a transition three in this game? The shot that killed the Spurs in the first two games? Pop made a brilliant adjustment to deny this shot to Curry and Thompson:
If you rewind the tape, you will see Duncan and Splitter lingering to pick up and trap Curry and Thompson at the three point line in transition, instead of running straight back as usual to take their post in the lane.
They were aided in this, of course, by the slowness of Andrew Bogut getting up the court.
The Tony Parker Adjustment: In another brilliant move, Pop eliminated the advantage of Klay Thompson’s length in defending Tony Parker.
How? By simply moving Parker, and the high pick, further out on the floor. In the first two games, the Spurs were setting that pick around the free throw line. In this game, it was being set closer to the three point line.
This gave Parker a lot more space to use his quickness to separate himself from Klay. It also completely removed him from the reach of Andrew Bogut, who is helpless to defend pick and roll that far out on the floor.
And in this game at least, Parker relentlessly knocked down the shots that are a little longer than what he likes to take. Including a couple of big threes.
Can Klay Thompson really guard Tony Parker? I think Pop supplied the answer to that question in this game. As Jerry West might put it, “that was on the coaches.”
Hack-a-Bogut: Not new this game, but completely devastating. Jackson was again reluctant to pull Bogut, and it cost him a possession, as Bogut missed 3 out of 4.
Here’s a cold hard truth about Bogut: his free throw shooting will not get better. It’s a result of his chronically arthritic right elbow.
Which means that he cannot be played at the end of games.
Mark Jackson’s Response: To his credit, Jackson replaced Ezeli with Carl Landry to start the third quarter, to give the Warriors some much needed floor spacing and offense. And more speed on the break. Landry has done a much better job running the floor in these playoffs than in the regular season.
And for much of this game, Landry was surprisingly effective. In crunchtime, though, Duncan put him in the grinder.
One wonders, though, if this is the best adjustment that Jackson could have made. Did he need to make an adjustment at all? Does he actually need to match up big against the Splitter and Duncan front line all of the time? Or should he actually try spreading the floor against them, and running?
Jim Barnett stated the problem in sharp terms, post-game: “This team cannot afford to play halfcourt basketball against the Spurs.”
Food for thought.
Calling David Lee: True to form, the ignorati at the San Jose Mercury News seized upon the Warriors’ success against the crippled and smallball Nuggets, and the crippled and smallball Spurs of the first two games, to bray to the world that the Warriors are “better without David Lee.”
This game put the lie to that, didn’t it? Do you think the Warriors could have used Lee to start the first and third quarters against Splitter and Duncan? Pull them out of the lane a bit? Give Curry something to work with in the pick and roll? Beat them downcourt in transition?
A large part of the reason why the Spurs defense is so effective on Curry, is that they don’t need to worry about guarding the Warriors’ bigs in pick and roll. When Curry passes them the ball, there is no worry about them shooting the 18 footer. And the Spurs have plenty of time to rotate if they drive the lane.
Lee punishes the blitz and the hedge. He hits that 18 footer. He drives the lane at speed and either gets a look at the rim, or finds an open man at the three point line.
And how about in crunch-time, when Hack-a-Bogut removes the Warriors big man from the floor? Who do you want at crunch-time center, running pick and roll with Curry and Jack, the best pick and roll center in the NBA, or Carl Landry?
Here’s the truth about David Lee. Against conventional front lines, he’s a heck of a power forward. But like every other conventional power forward in the league, he struggles on defense against stretch-fours. And when Bogut is playing well, and Mark Jackson has suddenly discovered, for the first time all season, that Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green are actually effective stretch-fours themselves, it might be true that the Warriors match up better against smallball teams without Lee at power forward.
Which is not to say they wouldn’t match up well playing smallball with Lee at center, in crunch-time. His best position, according to Don Nelson. The position at which he earned two All-Star selections, and carried this Warriors team into the post-season.
The great Hubie Brown summed it up well during the ESPN broadcast. People should stop focusing on all the things that Lee doesn’t do, and think a little bit more about all of the things that he does do. He’s one of the best players in the NBA, and the Warriors miss him terribly.