AT&T CENTER – “I thought we stopped moving the ball as well as we were early. Obviously, they picked up their defense too, that’s part of it.”
Those were the words of Cleveland Cavaliers Head Coach David Blatt, after his team fell to the San Antonio Spurs 99-95 Thursday, on a night where Cleveland had led by as many as 15 points in the first half.
“We just played better defense,” said Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich after the game of the Spurs’ defensive adjustments from the first quarter and beyond. “They did the same stuff. They just played it more aggressively and did a better job both execution-wise and competitively. That’s what it’s always about.”
In the first quarter, the Cavs built a 15-point lead when they had scored 28 points on the league’s best ranked defense, with 2:19 left in the first quarter. Whether it was drilling all three of their 3-pointers in the first quarter, scoring 14 points in the paint and just flat out taking care of the ball, Cleveland had the Spurs’ defense on their heels in the opening quarter, as they finished the quarter shooting 59% from the floor with just two turnovers.
From the second quarter until the end of the game, the Spurs’ defense used their energy and aggression as Tony Parker mentioned after the game, to hold Cleveland to just 63 points in the final three quarters.
“They did a good job of taking us out of our sets, but we also had some really good looks that just didn’t go down for us,” said LeBron James after the game.
“We realized we were giving them too many open looks,” said Manu Ginobili of the Spurs’ defensive slip in the first quarter. “We were not guarding the pick-and-roll very aggressively so we are lucky that that happened in the first quarter. We had time to adjust things and after that, I think they scored 65 in the other three quarters, so a great way to pick up the defense and then offensively you know it’s tough.”
In the first, the Cavaliers were being patient on offense with their pick-and-rolls, by either getting James and Irving to run the sets, which would force a mismatch when the Spurs had to quickly switch either onto Kevin Love (who could shoot outside or drive), or Tristan Thompson or Timofey Mozgov (who can both roll to the basket and dunk alley-oops).
Once San Antonio made the adjustment by having a big hedge out toward the player with the ball, while the help defense was ready to help in case of a drive, the Cavaliers either began to turn the ball over more frequently, or they were forced into contested outside shots.
“They got good stops and made us shoot contested jump shots,” said J.R. Smith after the game.
From quarters two through four, the Spurs’ defense forced Cleveland to shoot 5-of-15 from mid-range (33%) and 7-of-23 from beyond the arc (30%). The Cavaliers were only allowed 13 of 22 looks in the paint in the final three quarters for just 26 points in the paint.
“Today we turned it over too many times,” said Coach Blatt of the Cavaliers’ offense, which coughed up the ball 16 times from quarters two through four for 17 San Antonio points. “You can’t do that against a team like this, they’ll just make you pay. They’re too good offensively to get extra opportunities and more shots than you’d get. Right there was really the difference in the game, more than anything else.”
Cleveland became the 34th opponent this season the Spurs have held below 100 points in a game. San Antonio is holding teams to a league lowest 89.8 points per game. To put that number in context, the second best defense in opponent points per game allowed is the Miami Heat, who are only allowing teams to score 95.5 points per game. That’s a difference of 5.7 points per game less the Spurs are allowing.
The Spurs’ defense also ranks first in Defensive Rating, by holding teams to 93.6 points per 100 possessions. On a night against one of the elite teams in the league, when the Spurs’ second leading scorer only had six points, the team shot 45.8% from the floor with just 17 assists and the team only scored 99 points, San Antonio was able to call on its defense to help the team get out of a 15-point hole and stay undefeated at home, and in their last 10 games.