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Chess Match in play: Carlisle, Mavericks’ defense strike first

AT&T CENTER – “They’re doing a great job defensively,” said San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills Wednesday, after his team fell 113-92 to the Dallas Mavericks, “they’re showing different looks, they’re stretching us out offensively and they’re making us hold the ball and not move it like we usually do.”

“They’re taking our shooters out too,” continued Mills, “they’re slowing us down and taking us out of what we usually do. We just have to find ways around that.”

Through two games of the deadlocked (1-1) series between the Spurs and Mavericks, it’s been the Mavericks’ defense that has made the Spurs’ machine-like offense during the regular season, well, look like it’s broken.

During the regular season, the Spurs’ offense averaged 25.2 assists per contest. In the two games against the Mavericks, those numbers are down to 15.5 assists per game.

“Defensively, they changed some things,” said Tim Duncan of the Mavericks’ defense in game two. “They turned us over which was the difference in the game. They were sticking up on our shooters and making us do something else, and they shot the ball very well.”

33 points off 24 turnovers was a major issue for the Spurs’ offense and their defense, but the Mavericks have just completely taken the Spurs’ offense out of their comfort zone, by limiting the Spurs’ three point shooters and role players all-together.

Check out the Spurs’ touches per game during the regular season, and then how they’ve faired in the post-season (Via SportVU player data).

Parker 75.5 touches – 78 (Game 1), 65 (Game 2) – Game 2, below average

Duncan 59.9 touches – 65 (G1), 60 (G2) – Near average

Diaw 49.2 touches – 54 (G1), 32 (G2) – Game 2, below average

Ginobili 42.6 touches – 61 (G1), 46 (G2) – Above average

Mills 43.0 touches – 29 (G1), 37 (G2) – Below average

Leonard 40.0 touches – 37 (G1), 31 (G2) – Game 2, below average

Belinelli 38.5 touches – 13 (G1), 32 (G2) – Below average

Green 37.4 touches – 25 (G1), 29 (G2) – Below average

Splitter 36.0 touches – 45 (G1), 39 (G2) – Near average

“Defensively, we didn’t change much,” said Mavericks guard Devin Harris after the game Wednesday. “Limit their threes, try to keep Tony (Parker) out of the paint the best we can, just weather the storms and continue to play hard.”

Limiting the Spurs’ threes is just what the Mavericks have done, as the Spurs were averaging 21.4 three point attempts during the regular season on 39.7% shooting from long range. Through two games against Dallas, the Spurs are shooting 18.5 three pointers per game, on 35.1% shooting. Outside of Manu Ginobili, who is shooting 8-of-16 from three in the playoffs against the Mavericks, the Spurs have gotten a lot of inconsistency from beyond the arc in the series.

Using the Synergy Sports Database, in the 84 games this season, including the two playoff games, the Spurs’ two main areas where their 3-point scoring possessions come from are off Spot Ups and in transition. Check out how many of each scoring possession from 3-point range the Spurs averaged through 84 games, and where those numbers compare through two playoff games.

Regular season 3-point Spot-Ups: 11.3 per game (41.1% shooting) : Playoffs: 6.5 per game (54% shooting)

Regular Season 3-point Transition: 3.4 per game (43.2% shooting) : Playoffs: 4.0 per game (13% shooting)

As you can see, the areas where the Spurs normally get their threes from has been cut in half on their Spot-Up attempts by the Mavericks’ defense, and as Dirk Nowitzki said Wednesday after the game, the Mavericks are trying to get back on the Spurs’ shooters in transition, and it’s working, as the Spurs have made just 1-of-8 transition three pointers in the series.

After Parker went 8-of-11 in the paint on his way to 21 points, with the Mavericks’ switching defensive scheme in game one, Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle changed the approach on Parker in game two. Carlisle had Shawn Marion defend Parker, and Marion hovered around the perimeter of the paint, so that Parker had to settle for jumpers only, instead of driving to the basket. The maneuver worked as Parker shot 0-of-1 in the paint, and though he went 5-of-9 on his jumpers, his jumpers didn’t lead to dribble penetration, which would have opened up areas for ball movement. Whether he used the pick-and-roll, or ran around three screens without the ball, Parker couldn’t penetrate into the paint since Marion refused to go out on the perimeter with him, and the defense forced Parker to shoot the jumper or pass.

“We took away their threes,” continued Harris, “now they’re trying to figure out other ways to score, and hopefully we can keep it going.”

During the regular season, the Spurs’ main scoring possessions came from the pick-and-roll, off Spot-Ups, and in transition. Check out how the Mavericks’ defense is limiting those areas, and like Harris said, making the Spurs find other ways to score.

Regular Season (RS) Pick & Roll Ball Handler: 15.6% of the time (0.89 Points Per Possession) : Playoffs P&R Ball Handler: 16.6% of the time (0.95 PPP)

RS P&R Roll Man: 6.4% of the time (0.94 PPP) : Playoffs P&R Roll Man: 6.5% of the time (0.86 PPP)

With less ball movement, the Spurs are being forced to stick strictly with the pick-and-roll for a majority of their possessions against the Mavericks’ defense.

RS Spot-Up: 20.1% of the time (1.06 PPP) : Playoffs Spot-Up: 14.7% of the time (0.91 PPP)

The Spurs are averaging almost six less Spot-Up scoring possessions, and are not scoring at their usual rate of 1.06 PPP. The Spot-Up scoring possession is connected with passing and ball movement, a sign that shows how the Mavericks have forced the Spurs to hold onto the ball for possessions, like Mills mentioned.

RS Transition: 13.2% of the time (1.14 PPP) : Playoffs Transition: 12.6% of the time (0.68 PPP)

Lastly, the transition opportunities are still present, but the Mavericks’ defense is getting back on transition defense and holding the Spurs to just 0.68 PPP when San Antonio tried to score in transition.

As Harris said, the Spurs look like they’re trying to find other ways to score, and based on the data, isolations is where those areas of scoring are coming from. On the season, the Spurs only used isolations 5.2% of the time, scoring 0.89 PPP. Against the Mavericks, the isolation possessions have jumped double that, to 10.05% of the time, and the Spurs are scoring 0.86 PPP on those attempts.

When asked Wednesday if the issue on the offensive end is getting the role players involved, Ginobili gave a glimpse of what the Spurs could do as the series moves forward.

“I don’t think that the main issue is getting them involved,” said Ginobili of the role players, “we are a team that gives and takes what the other team will allow us to take. I think we are pretty good at that, there are some teams that help a lot, and we can find open shooters, and there are some teams that won’t.”

“We are going to have to play more pick-and-roll and find the bigs,” continued Ginobili. “Of course we would like them to be more involved, but it is our responsibility, the ones that handle the ball the most. I think we need to push the tempo more and turn the ball over way less. With 24 (turnovers), it’s really hard to win a playoff game against a good team.”

As Ginobili said, the Spurs may need to increase their pick-and-roll action, and one strategy that could work if Marion decides to defend Parker the same way, is to give the ball to possibly Duncan in the low block, and see if Duncan can post with the mismatch, if Marion gets caught having to defend him. If the Spurs do decide to post-up more like Ginobili possibly hinted, they’ve done so fairly well this season, though it wasn’t often. The Spurs ran post-ups 8.7% of the time during the season, scoring 0.90 PPP, which ranked 7th in the NBA.

As the chess match has already begun with Carlisle taking the upper hand with his defensive schemes, it’ll be interesting to see what types of adjustments Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs make to counter. By Saturday evening, after 48 minutes in Dallas, one coach will be leading the chess match against his opponent, either Carlisle or Popovich.

(All stats used via, SportVU data, and Synergy Sports)

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.