Chess match continues, Popovich has edge with new adjustments

AT&T CENTER –After the San Antonio Spurs’ loss in game two to the Dallas Mavericks of their opening playoff series, I wrote a piece titled Chess Match in Play: Carlisle, Mavericks’ Defense Strikes First.

The piece described the initial stages of how the Mavericks’ defensive scheme by Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle was forcing Spurs guard Tony Parker to take long jumpers, and how the Mavericks’ defense had taken the Spurs’ shooters out of the series by not allowing them to shoot their preferred shots.

Even in games three and four, where the Spurs split those two games in Dallas, it still didn’t seem like the Spurs were playing their machine-like style on offense, because their primary offensive weapon, Parker, was being limited by Shawn Marion and the Mavericks’ switching defense.

Carlisle had the upper hand in the chess match with his opponent, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, but after game five ended in a 109-103 victory for the Spurs Wednesday, it was clear Popovich had made some adjustments, and he is now the one in the lead, in the chess match with Carlisle.

So what adjustments did Popovich make to allow his team to shoot 46.6% from the field, tally 24 assists, shoot 8-of-16 from three, and score 109 points in the game? It all goes back to what he first did to take Marion away from Parker in the first half.

At the beginning of game five on the offensive end, the Spurs looked for Kawhi Leonard in the post, as he had the smaller Monta Ellis defending him. Each time Leonard would receive the ball, he would either work to score, or he would receive a double-team. When Leonard would kick out of the double team, it would take the Mavericks’ defensive sets out of their placement, and get them scrambling, an edge that allowed the Spurs to run different pick-and-roll looks.

Dallas still came out with Marion guarding Parker to start the game, but with Samuel Dalembert sustaining any early injury at what looked like his ankle area, Parker was able to finally have possessions where he was getting into the paint against Marion, Dalembert, and Dirk Nowitzki.

As the Spurs also continued working through Leonard, Carlisle decided to give Marion some possessions guarding Leonard. The move would mean Jose Calderon had to guard Parker, which gave Parker the upper hand.

By the end of the first quarter, both Parker and Marion each played 10:10 minutes apiece, but Parker was already able to find a rhythm, scoring 10 points in the opening quarter, on which some of his drives were in the paint. With Parker finally being able to get into the paint, it allowed him to even get Danny Green involved, as Green made a corner 3-pointer in the first off Parker’s dribble penetration.

By the second quarter, Parker still had Calderon guarding him for a majority of the possessions, and though he didn’t score, it was clear the Spurs were moving the ball, as they assisted on 7 of their 12 made baskets in the second quarter. By the end of the second quarter, Parker played 7:14 minutes, and Marion had played 5:35 minutes.

When the second half had come, Parker was already seeing heavy doses of being defended by both Calderon and Devin Harris, players that would allow Parker’s dribble penetration, which would set up more ball moment for the Spurs. Marion would play 8:38 minutes in the third quarter, and as it looked like the Mavericks needed offense for the fourth quarter, Carlisle never brought Marion out in the final quarter.

With Marion out for a big part of the second half, and Nowitzki, and Brandan Wright being the only two primary big men to protect the paint from Parker and Manu Ginobili’s relentless pick-and-roll attack with Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, the Spurs had the upper hand for the remainder of the evening.

By the time the final buzzer rang, the Spurs had outscored the Mavericks 54-28 in the paint, while 48% of San Antonio’s looks were uncontested on the evening per the SportVU data. The ball movement was clearly present, as you can see by this chart. In the chart, it displays how many touches and passes the Spurs’ six core players were averaging in the first four games of the series, and then how much higher those numbers rose Wednesday.

Player Average Touches Touches Game 5 Average Passes Passes Game 5
Tony Parker 74.3 91 53.8 60
Tim Duncan 62.5 70 44.5 50
Manu Ginobili 55.0 64 33.5 42
Boris Diaw 46.0 34 37.3 28
Tiago Splitter 43.3 60 33.8 46
Kawhi Leonard 38.5 39 25.5 25

With Parker finally able to penetrate, another move Popovich must be credited for was his team’s offense in the pick-and-roll, and the Mavericks’ inability to stop it for a primary part of the game.

“Obviously they’re a little smarter with it now,” said Nowitzki of the Spurs’ pick-and-roll offense in game five. “We’ve been doing it (defensive scheme) for five games. That roll is tough. You can’t give Duncan or Splitter those easy, uncontested layups. That’s how they affect the game. We’ll see,” continued Nowitzki, “we’ll watch the film. If we need to adjust, we’ll adjust.”

Per the Synergy Sports database, the Spurs ran 41 pick-and-roll possessions in game five, which meant 39% of their scoring possessions came from the pick-and-roll. In their 27 scoring possessions by the ball handler (Parker, Ginobili, Leonard, Mills), the Spurs scored on 9-of-23 attempts (39% FG). In their 14 attempts to the roll man (Splitter, Duncan, Diaw), the Spurs scored on 7-of-12 attempts (58%).

As stated above, one of the first adjustments Popovich made, was making the Mavericks’ defense begin to focus on Leonard as an offensive threat early, so that Marion had to defend Leonard, and Parker had Calderon defending him.

Take a look at this pick-and-roll from Parker in the first quarter with Calderon guarding him. At this moment in time, Duncan had already set the screen for Parker, and Calderon (green box) wasn’t quick enough to switch, so Parker was already in the paint to shoot his tear drop before Dalembert had a chance to contest it. If Marion was guarding this play, there’s a chance Dalembert would have stopped Parker from stepping into the paint right after Duncan set the screen.

Parker paint 1 Calderon

Now watch the play in full speed, and you can see there’s a major drop off defensively when Calderon defends Parker on pick-and-rolls, as opposed to Marion.

Duncan and Splitter combined for 33 points on 14 of 26 shooting (54% FG), so what exactly did Popovich do to allow them to get layups, draw fouls, or even dunk the ball on the pick-and-roll? The following images below can give you a glimpse. Here’s a play from early in the second quarter. Ginobili and Splitter had just run a pick-and-roll, and the result was a Splitter open basket with Nowitzki unable to block him. As you can see, I highlighted Diaw in the corner. On this play Wright was late in running back to stop Splitter off the pick-and-roll because Diaw had him paying attention so far out in the corner that Wright was too late in having any chance at blocking Splitter’s shot. Diw corner early 2Q  

Though he hasn’t scored many points in this series, one of Matt Bonner’s key reasons for being on the floor is to provide spacing. Notice how I have him highlighted on this pick-and-roll between Ginobili and Duncan. Just for those few seconds that Bonner’s out in the corner, he already has Nowitzki in a place where he has to worry about both Bonner and Duncan.

Bonner corner late 2Q

Now you can see the play in full motion. As you can see Bonner’s more of a decoy out there.

On this pick-and-roll play late in the third quarter, notice how Diaw, the Spurs’ big man alongside Duncan, heads to the outside of the arc to draw Marion away from the basket to him. After Wright and Ellis don’t switch properly, and with Carter staying near Green, Duncan gets an open uncontested layup. Diaw decoy 3Q Now watch the play in full motion, again, watch how Diaw draws Marion out of the paint.  

With the series heading back to Dallas Friday for game six, Popovich now sits as the frontrunner to win the chess match against Carlisle. Does Carlisle and the Mavericks have the necessary adjustments to try to even the series and force a game seven Sunday, or will it be Popovich who can say “checkmate” and eliminate Carlisle and his Mavericks from the playoffs this Friday?

(Stats, images, video, via,

Paul Garcia

About Paul Garcia

Paul is a San Antonio Spurs credentialed media member for Project Spurs. He covered the 2013 NBA All-Star Game in Houston, TX, and the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals. Paul has been featured on WOAI, Fox 29, and numerous nationwide radio shows.