AT&T CENTER – With 8:36 minutes left in the third quarter Sunday, the San Antonio Spurs led the Dallas Mavericks 50-38. Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge had just made an and-one play with a 3-foot layup and he was about to go to the free throw line to complete the sequence. With time stopped, Mavericks Head Coach Rick Carlisle took out center JaVale McGee and he inserted guard Raymond Felton into the lineup. From that point, the Mavericks had a small ball lineup on the floor made up of Deron Williams, Felton, Chandler Parsons, Charlie Villanueva and Dirk Nowtizki.
From the 8:36 minute mark until the end of the quarter, the Spurs kept two big men on the floor at all times with combinations of Tim Duncan and Aldridge, Aldridge and Boris Diaw, and Diaw and David West. During that time frame, the Mavericks continually kept a small ball unit on the floor with either Nowitzki or Zaza Pachulia as the center to end the quarter. The Spurs took advantage of the Mavs’ small ball units, as San Antonio headed into the fourth quarter leading by 22 points, 78-56.
In the time that Carlisle had inserted the small ball lineup, the Spurs had outscored Dallas 28-18 for the final 8:36 minutes of the third quarter. So, just how were the Spurs able to get those 28 points while staying big against a smaller unit, a lot of it has to do with the spacing on offense.
Spacing for Aldridge
First, when the Mavericks went small, the Spurs looked for Aldridge on four of the next six possessions. Aldridge scored eight points during that sequence. On his first scoring possession against the Mavericks’ small ball, Parker passed to Aldridge in the right low block and then Parker dashed to the corner to pull his defender (Matthews) out of the play. With isolation on Nowitzki in the post, Aldridge made the turnaround 9-foot jumper. You can see how much spacing he had to work with as I outlined the area before the closest help defender in green.
On Aldridge’s next scoring possession, instead of Parker delivering the pass to the right block for Aldridge, it’s Leonard. Leonard threw the ball into Aldridge and then Leonard shifts to the center of the arc, to pull his defender (Deron Williams) away from being a help defender. Again, note how much spacing Aldridge has to work with against an undersized defender in Villanueva.
On the very next possession, Parker delivers the pass to Aldridge once more in the right block and Parker ran back to the opposite corner to pull Matthews away from being a help defender. Aldridge would score once more over Villanueva, as you can see the spacing his teammates created for him.
After two made free throws by Jonathon Simmons on the next possession, the Spurs go back to using Aldridge’s size over Villanueva, but instead of giving the ball to Alridge in the low block, Duncan feeds Aldridge a high-low passing sequence that puts Aldridge with position right under the rim and no help defenders available to stop his layup.
“Yes, we did feel we had an advantage there,” said Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich after the game of going to Aldridge more often when the Mavs were playing a smaller lineup.
“We were just trying to play inside-out more,” said Aldridge after the game of his scoring in the third quarter. “In the first half, we felt like we took more jump shots than usual, so, I was trying to be on the block and be more aggressive. I had a guy on me that was smaller, so I was trying to take advantage of it.”
“Coach just said, play inside-out more,” continued Aldridge. “He (Coach Popovich) told me to ask for the ball and I felt like I made those first two, and guys just kept feeding me out there, so I just tried to make plays out there for us.”
“He got hot for a few plays in a row,” said Diaw of Aldridge’s advantage against the Mavericks’ small ball lineup in the third. “So, obviously we were looking for him and the ball was finding him pretty naturally actually. We weren’t forcing anything.”
Spacing for Diaw
As for Diaw, he checked in for the final 3:48 minutes of the third against the Mavericks’ small unit with Pachulia playing center at the time. With the spacing of he, Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Leonard and Aldridge on the floor, Diaw missed an open 3-pointer, but the Spurs got the offensive rebound. Immediately after, Leonard made a high basketball IQ play, by electing to allow Diaw to work in the post against the mismatch in Matthews, instead of Leonard trying to score on Parsons from the outside.
Once Leonard delivered the pass to Diaw, Leonard flashed to the opposite corner to pull his defender (Parsons) away from the play. With Matthews having to guard Diaw by himself, Diaw used an efficient jump hook to score over Matthews. You can see the amount of spacing Diaw had as I outlined the area from the help defense in green.
After Leonard made a mid-range jumper on the next possession, the ball would end up in Diaw’s hands again in the low block. With Matthews still guarding Diaw, he was forced to foul Diaw. Diaw would go on to make two free throws. Toward the end of the quarter, with 30.9 seconds left on the clock, the dribble penetration and extra passing by the Spurs got Diaw a wide open angle 3-pointer, which he made.
In the final 3:48 minutes, Diaw was able to score all seven of his points in the third quarter. In the 7:06 minutes that Aldridge played against the Mavericks’ small ball unit, he was able to pour in 8 of his 13 points in the third quarter. So far this season, the Spurs haven’t played many teams that play with exclusive small ball units aside from a few opponents such as the Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks, and Cleveland Cavaliers.
In most instances this season when San Antonio does face a small ball lineup, the Spurs have elected to stay big with a combination of Duncan/Aldridge, Aldridge/Diaw, Diaw/West, or West/Duncan. There have been a few rare instances where the Spurs will match with a small lineup of either Leonard or Kyle Anderson at the 4, but overall, the majority of the time San Antonio is preferring to stay big against small-ball units.
“That’s one of the two choices,” said Diaw after Sunday’s game about staying big against small ball lineups. “We’ve got to go small when teams go small, or we go big and try to use that (Spurs’ size) to our advantage.”
A week from today, on January 25th, the Spurs will meet the league leading Golden State Warriors in Oracle Arena. Should both teams be healthy and play their core players, it will be interesting to see if Golden State chooses to play their “Death Ball” lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green. Why is that lineup called the Death Ball lineup? Well, in the 19 games that unit has been used this season, they’re outscoring teams by a league best 60.4 points per 100 possessions. That is the best 5-man lineup in basketball at the moment. Should Golden State roll out the lineup, it will be intriguing to see if the Spurs stay big against it, like they did against the Mavericks Sunday, or, if San Antonio matches the Warriors and goes small.