The San Antonio Spurs barely escaped a tough Game 1 battle in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs and they came up short (by a lot) in Game 2 on Wednesday night. The team will be going into Game 3 and entering it in hostile territory in Dallas Mavericks territory, but they still have the league’s best record and Coach of the Year behind leading them with veteran poise that’s likely not to contribute to any jitters.
What can the Spurs do to adjust and take the series?
They must learn from the past and look to their old selves in 2006. No, I’m not saying injure the Big 3 of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, or Tony Parker or sign an aged Michael Finley to try to defeat his old team.
One of the main strategies San Antonio has tried to impose on Dallas is by going in a traditional lineup and trying to match up against them. This leaves Tiago Splitter guarding Dirk with little to no help and the silver and black backcourt guarding Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, and Devin Harris respectively. While it may seem the Spurs might have an advantage on the Spurs in the guard positions with Parker’s skill and Danny Green’s height, the Spurs are still struggling to score and defend points.
One of the main reasons for this is that Danny Green is too one dimensional on the court. While he does have the advantage physically over Ellis, he’s too slow to keep up with him off the ball and his inability to score helps the Mavericks get a breather on whoever he is guarding. Green’s lack of offense at creating his own shot has been a problem for the Spurs also (most important example being the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat last season). The only way Danny Green is a dangerous threat to an opposing team is if they play the pick and roll and help. If Green’s man is playing him up or helping and quick enough to recover and contest, he won’t do much damage. Teams will prefer for Green to put the ball on the floor and try to throw up a shot over him shooting it any day over a smaller player.
So what does this team need against this new (but really old) Mavericks defensive strategy? This is the same defensive mindset they had in 2009 when they dared someone outside the Big 2 (with Manu Ginobili hurt) to beat them. The Spurs had Roger Mason Jr, Ime Udoka, Matt Bonner, and a handful of other players getting regular minutes during that playoff run and none of those players could effeciently creat their own shots. The Spurs went small three years earlier to help that very cause, to help be quicker on defense, and with that we saw a determined Michael Finley shoot, drive, and score whenever he saw light to the basket and the ball was in his hands.
Here a few options that might help the Spurs in Game 3 as adjustments.
Starting Patty Mills: Before anyone freaks out, I’m not saying start him in place of Tony Parker. I’m saying Coach Pop should think about starting him next to Parker. This would provide the Spurs with a quick offensive aggressive minded backcourt. This duo would certainly counter the Calderon and Ellis backcourt on both sides of the ball since it would force the Mavericks guards without a rest on defense. We’ve seen this strategy before years ago when TJ Ford was on the team and Pop decided to go with a small backcourt before Ford retired due to injury. It was a highly effective offense back then and Mills is a better offensive option with this team. This decision could also help Mills get out of the funk he’s been in so far these playoffs (18% FG, 14% 3FG).
Start Marco Belinelli: OK, this isn’t going small as intended and the Spurs stay as a traditional lineup. The difference is huge between the current one and this one with Belinelli as the starting shooting guard. Now San Antonio can run offense through him and he’s great in motion off the ball. With Belinelli’s energy in the starting lineup, that would open up passing lanes and easy shots against a shorter opponent. Belinelli is only shooting 27% FG so far in the postseason and matchup up against a smaller opponent while being on the floor with arguably 4 of the best players on the team might give him open looks that he hasn’t seen before.
Start Manu Ginobili: He was being in Game 2 on Wednesday night scoring 27 points on 9-12 shooting. He’s also shooting 59% from the field and 66% from beyond the arc. So why ruin his mojo this series so far? Ginobili has been dominating against the second string rotation of the Mavericks, but this is the offensive power the Spurs are lacking with the starting unit. If Pop starts Ginobili, that’ll force Popovich to watch minutes and sit players at different times during stretches. That’s nothing new for the Spurs anyway as that was the old philosophy Pop had with the Big 3 years ago. Pop has started Manu in years when the Spurs struggled in the opening minutes (2005 playoffs against the Denver Nuggets anyone?) and with this deep versatile team, it’d be a better option to start him with the bench players the Spurs have now.
These are just a few options the Spurs might have as adjustments, but the central theme is the same: The Spurs need to move to an offensive minded lineup to start Game 1 that helps them score from the tip. WIth Tiago Splitter being able to guard Dirk Nowitzki well, that leaves Pop with options in the backcourt to make the team more versatile while really not losing any of the defensive intensity since the Spurs defense relies on helps from the bigs. Tim Duncan will be along Splitter to contest every shot in the paint and it will certainly help ease the scoring burden off of Parker and Duncan in the process.