With a sample size of one game, it can be hard to know if a large change in style was an adjustment made by the coaching staff or the players taking what the defense was giving them in that particular game, but the Spurs played differently than they usually do in Game 3 against the Denver Nuggets.
The Spurs, who were last in the league in frequency of possessions that begin in transition during the regular season at 11.5%, had 20.2% of their possessions begin with what CleaningTheGlass calls a “transition play.” As a reference, the Spurs began 5.4% and 9.1% of their possessions in transition in Games 1 and 2, respectively.
This caused issues for the Nuggets’ defense. While the Spurs scored fewer points per 100 transition plays than the Nuggets did, the Spurs added 7.2 points per 100 possessions, another stat that CleaningTheGlass.com tracks, in transition alone. That mark was only beaten in sixteen percent of games this season.
The reason for this is almost certainly Derrick White. The Nuggets’ guards had difficulty staying in front of White, especially in the first half. This allowed him to score a career-high 36 points, with 24 of those points coming in the paint according to the NBA’s stat site.
In the third quarter, the Nuggets’ guards had difficulty staying in front of DeMar DeRozan, who had 10 points in the paint in that quarter (though more of DeRozan’s attempts were contested, it appeared).
Overall for the season, Denver’s defense gave up 109.2 points per 100 possessions, 11th in the league. Since January 1st, though, they allowed 111.0 points per 100 possessions, 16th in the league. Removing April, as some games at the end of the regular season can be a bad indication of how well a team is actually playing, doesn’t improve the Nuggets’ defense.
They still gave up a defensive rating of 111.0 from January 1st to March 31st. During that span, the Nuggets were about average in three of the four defensive four factors. They ranked 17th in opponent’s effective field goal percentage, 19th in opponent turnover percentage, and 18th in opponent’s free throw rate. The only one of the defensive four factors they ranked high in was offensive rebound percentage, in which they ranked 6th.
The Spurs had an above average game in each of those categories in Game 3 compared to every game played this season, specifically in turnover percentage (97th percentile), offensive rebounding percentage (96th percentile) and free throw rate (82 percentile). DeRozan committed 0 turnovers despite having a usage rate of 25.6%.
White had a low turnover percentage as well at 4.4% of all possessions he “used” resulting in a turnover. Rudy Gay, DeRozan, and White combined for 22 free throws attempts. Aldridge, Poeltel, and Gay rebounded more than 10% of the Spurs’ misses, each.
While White’s scoring was a definitely important, the Spurs put pressure on the Nuggets’ defense in three of the four factors. The Nuggets can make several defensive adjustments in Game 4. They may not cause the Spurs to turn the ball over, but if they continue to allow the Spurs to grab their own misses, shoot as many free throws, and get shots in the paint, Game 4 may look similar.
All stats from CleaningTheGlass.com unless otherwise noted.