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A disappearing act through 3 games, the Spurs’ bench

As the San Antonio Spurs find themselves down 1-2 in their first round series against the Dallas Mavericks heading into Game 4 Monday evening, one obvious area where the team is struggling, is from the production of their role players, who were a big part on a nightly basis, of the Spurs winning 62 games this season.

Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, and Tiago Splitter have been performing well enough to keep the Spurs close enough to the Mavericks during the series, but through three games, it’s clear Danny Green, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, and Boris Diaw haven’t been as superb as they were in the regular season.  So what exactly is the Mavericks’ defense doing to affect these players so drastically? We’ll take a look at some numbers, pictures, and video clips that have some details as to why the four players are struggling so much, and if there’s still time for them to turn around their performances.

The invisible one: Danny Green

To show how much Green’s production has dipped off, take a look at his numbers from the regular season in comparison to the playoffs. One number that has really fallen, is his amount of shots per game.

Regular Season: 7.4 FGA (43% FG), 3.7 3PA (41.5% 3PT), 9.1 points per game, 106.2 Offensive Rating, 96.4 Defensive Rating

Playoffs: 4.0 FGA (25.0%), 3.3 3PA (30.0% 3PT), 3.0 points per game, 93.4 Offensive Rating, 106.6 Defensive Rating

Credit must be given to Mavericks guard Jose Calderon, who told me before game two, that his primary defensive focus was to stay near Green as much as possible, and limit his 3-point attempts. Calderon has limited Green so much that by game three, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich ended up keeping Green benched for a majority of the night, as Green only played 13 minutes in the game. As written after game three, not having Green on the floor really hurts the Spurs’ perimeter defense, as he was their second best player on the team in terms of Defensive Rating, through the season.

Using the Synergy Sports Database, I built a table showing Green’s three preferred methods of scoring, based on the percentage of time he takes those shots. After, I tracked his attempts at his preferred shots in the playoffs, and showed how his amounts of those shots has dipped in the playoffs.

Shot Type % of time Attempts in playoffs Regular season per game Playoffs per game
Spot-Up 36.8% 3 attempts 3.2 per game 1.0 per game
Transition 22.9% 3 attempts 2.0 per game 1.0 per game
Off Screens 11.5% 4 attempts 1.0 per game 1.3 per game

If you watched Green in his time with San Antonio, you’re well aware he’s not one of the players who can put the ball on the floor and create a basket for himself. He shown by the numbers above, he relies on others dribble penetration, kicking out, passing, and spacing for his spot-ups. He’s also become very confident in grabbing defensive rebounds, taking the ball up the floor, and attempting three pointers in transition. Lastly, Green has some set plays run for him from time to time, where his teammates will set picks on the person defending him, like the one shown below from game three.

With his limited offensive skill set, Green has been taken out of the series as an offensive threat, as Calderon just solely sticks nearby. Check out the image below from game two, where Parker had a pick-and-roll set, but Calderon is still close enough to contest Green’s shot. A lot of Green’s lack of production is coming from the Mavericks’ defensive scheme on Parker.

Green guarded

As you can see below in the image below, the Mavericks are just daring Parker to make outside jumpers for the majority of the game. With Parker only being allowed jumpers, it’s taking away from his dribble penetration, which is an area that takes away opportunities from Green. The photo below is actually from game three right before the half. Both Shawn Marion and Samuel Dalembert aren’t even contesting Parker, and he still ended up missing the shot.

Parker getting room

Using the SportVU data from NBA.com, take a look at Parker’s passing from the regular season to the post season.

Regular Season

TP MG RS

Playoffs

TP MG PO

In viewing the data, Parker’s amount of passes are very similar, but it’s his assist opportunities, points created off assists, and points created off assists per 48 minutes that really show how much the Mavericks’ defense is taking away from his opportunity of creating shots for others, Green in particular.

Right now, it’s looking like the only way Green can turn his offensive performance around is dependent on what changes with Parker. As written as well after Game three, Parker’s production has begun to significantly decline from the first half to the second half in the series. In order for Parker to open up the driving lane, he either has to make the Mavericks respect him, by making the jumpers they’re giving him (hasn’t worked so far), or he needs to get out more in transition, where he can create shots on his own, or run quick pick-and-rolls before the defense sets in its switching formation. Another option Popovich could potentially look at is playing a player who can spread the floor next to Duncan or Splitter. If a player like Matt Bonner or one of the wings like Leonard or Belinelli were playing the four-spot, they could take a defender away from the paint and hover around the 3-point line, which might affect the Mavericks’ switching action, if it’s just one Spurs big man setting the pick, and rolling, or popping.

One last alternative to try and get Green some opportunities offensively without running set plays for him, might be for Green to come off the bench, and Belinelli starts in his place, like the Spurs had tried a few times during the season. In this scenario, Green would be facing the Mavericks’ second unit for some of those minutes (avoiding Calderon), while having Ginobili, Diaw, and Mills to play with, in trying to get himself open as they work to initiate the offense.

The lost shot: Patty Mills

Unlike Green, Mills is a player who can create his own shot. As you can see from his regular season to playoff numbers, Mills isn’t performing like the fiery spark the Spurs were accustomed to having off the bench this season. Regular Season: 8.2 FGA (46.4% FG), 3.9 3PA (42.5% 3PT), 10.2 points per game, 109.1 Offensive Rating, 98.3 Defensive Rating Playoffs: 5.3 FGA (25.0%), 3.3 3PA (10.0% 3PT), 4.0 points per game, 95.2 Offensive Rating, 118.2 Defensive Rating

In looking at the Synergy numbers, Mills too is getting less opportunities to take his preferred shots. 

Shot Type % of time Attempts in playoffs Regular season per game Playoffs per game
P&R Ball Handler 32.8% 6 attempts 3.1 per game 2.0 per game
Spot-Up 24.1% 5 attempts 2.3 per game 1.7 per game
Transition 14% 5 attempts 1.3 per game 1.7 per game

Though his shots have been limited, they’re still presenting themselves against the Mavericks’ defense, only Mills just cannot buy a basket right now in this series. Take a look at the clip below. There are two shots Mills normally makes, but for some reason, they haven’t gone in now for three straight games. On the series, Mills is shooting 1-of-10 from 3-point range, where most of his looks have been open, or quality ‘Patty Mills’ type looks.

 

One of the areas where Mills is being challenged is in guarding Devin Harris off the bench. Thus far, Harris has had the edge off the bench for the Mavericks, looking comfortable when he has Mills defending him. There’s still a strong chance Mills can turn around his production heading into game four, if he can make his open, or ‘Patty Mills’ type shots.

Not Gary Neal through 3 games: Marco Belinelli

In his first season with the Spurs, Marco Belinelli looked like the perfect fit, finding a comfortable position coming off the bench, and scoring with his off the ball activity, making plays with his passing, play in the pick-and-roll, and his 3-point shooting. But as you can tell from his performance so far through three games in the playoffs, there’s a reason on Twitter I read a tweet asking for former Spur Gary Neal to return during game two.

Regular Season: 8.7 FGA (48.5% FG), 3.7 3PA (43.0% 3PT), 11.4 points per game, 109.9 Offensive Rating, 102.6 Defensive Rating

Playoffs: 4.7 FGA (42.9%), 1.3 3PA (50.0% 3PT), 4.7 points per game, 95.7 Offensive Rating, 119.6 Defensive Rating

Looking at Belinelli’s shooting preferences from Synergy, it’s clear he too is a player that receives a lot of his shots off passing and dribble penetration from his teammates. The areas where his offense has really taken a hit is in his off-ball activity, and production in the times when he has the ball in his hands.

Shot Type % of time Attempts in playoffs Regular season per game Playoffs per game
Spot-Up 27.1% 7 attempts 2.8 per game 2.3 per game
Off Screens 17.4% 2 attempts 1.8 per game 0.7 per game
Transition 12.9% 2 attempts 1.3 per game 0.7 per game
P&R Ball Handler 12.7% 2 attempts 1.3 per game 0.7 per game
Cuts 10.6% 2 attempts 1.1 per game 0.7 per game

Unlike Green, Belinelli is player who works well on all areas of the floor without the basketball. Check out this cut from game two, where he sees a defensive error by the Mavericks, and takes advantage by quickly running under the rim for the open layup. Like Mills, Belinelli is a player who can try to initiate more offense himself, as being a pick-and-roll ball handler wasn’t something he did often, but as you can see, it’s where 12.7% of his scoring possessions came from. Belinelli made all three of his baskets in game three, the problem was he only took three. He still has an opportunity to create some more opportunities for himself, whether it’s with or without the ball going forward in the series.

Boris Diaw

Though it wasn’t up to par with what he was producing during the regular season, Diaw actually had an efficient effort in game three, as he made some big plays, and made some critical shots in the fourth quarter. However, with the series as a whole, you can also see Diaw has slipped from the regular season to the playoffs. Regular Season: 7.3 FGA (52.1% FG), 1.4 3PA (40.2% 3PT), 9.1 points per game, 109.3 Offensive Rating, 101.3 Defensive Rating Playoffs: 5.0 FGA (46.7%), 1.0 3PA (33.3% 3PT), 5.0 points per game, 101.0 Offensive Rating, 132.5 Defensive Rating

Like Belinelli, Diaw is one of the more versatile players on the offensive end for the Spurs, as he has five preferred methods of scoring according to Synergy.

Shot Type % of time Attempts in playoffs Regular season per game Playoffs per game
Spot-Up 25.3% 4 attempts 2.3 per game 1.3 per game
Post Up 17.4% 3 attempts 1.6 per game 1.0 per game
Cuts 14.1% 4 attempts 1.3 per game 1.3 per game
P&R Man 11.9% 2 attempts 1.1 per game 0.7 per game
Transition 10.6% 1 attempt 1.0 per game 0.3 per game

By reading the data above, one area where Diaw could still have an impact, if he used the scoring method more, is with his post-ups. If you take a look at the video below, you’ll see Diaw make one of his post-ups. Throughout the series, Diaw could potentially have a mismatch when posting up. It’ll be interesting to see if Popovich calls for more Diaw post ups when the second unit comes in, to generate offense.  

Outside of Ginobili, the Spurs’ ‘Foreign Legion’ plus Green haven’t played up to their expectations through three games in the playoffs. With at minimum two games remaining, there’s still a chance for the group of players to have an impact on the series, and help the team try to even the series and force more games. For this Spurs bench, it’s a matter of taking responsibility and living up to the expectations they’ve set for their team, fans, and themselves.

(Data used via NBA.com/Stats, Synergy Sports, video clips via Synergy Sports, photos via Synergy Sports, NBA.com)

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.

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