What’s Working and What isn’t for Pop’s New Lineup

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Gregg Popovich made a much needed change to the starting lineup on Sunday, replacing Derrick White with Rudy Gay in a move that paid dividends against the Golden State Warriors.

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Gay responded immediately, dropping 12 points in the first quarter and dropping the hammer on a thunderous dunk to bring the entire AT&T Center crowd to its feet. He spread the floor, put the ball on it, and scored all over it.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsMany fools once said that Kawhi Leonard was just Rudy Gay in the Spurs’ system. If San Antonio is to be successful this year, Gay has to fit into the role that Leonard outgrew. He needs to space the floor for San Antonio’s interior stars, now named LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. He needs to make a quick scoring decision once the ball comes to him, and he’s done that at a very high level.

He also needs to do the thing that Leonard became famous for: lock up the best wing scorer on the other team. Against one of the most talented humans to ever put balls through hoops, Gay performed more than admirably. Kevin Durant shot 8/25 from the floor, and Rudy gave up only one of those buckets.

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Gay kept giving Durant just enough space to get a shot up, but he got right in his face to contest it every time. Rudy shut him down at the rim, at the arc, and everywhere in between. KD and the rest of the Steph-less Warriors have been riding the struggle bus since Draymond dared Durant to leave in free agency, but they’re still a formidable opponent. San Antonio needed every bucket and every stop to keep the dubs from getting one, and Gay contributed heavily.

The real key to the game was Aldridge’s dominance in the post; a rare sighting this year as opposing centers have had the length, strength and athleticism to limit LA’s efficiency all over the floor. Kevon Looney, however, has none of those things. Neither did anyone else for Golden State.

Aldridge poured in 24 points, many in the paint, and when the double team came he kicked it out and the ball swung beautifully to whomever was most open.

Moving Gay into the starting lineup did far more than just that. In a lot of ways, it allowed Popovich to balance the rotation and ensure that players with redundant strengths and weaknesses do not share the floor together. In Sunday’s long piece about the personnel puzzle, I noted that the pairings of Forbes/Mills and DeRozan/White should be staggered so that everyone is in the best situation to do their respective jobs.

Popovich finally did that, and the defense remained solid throughout the game while there was enough playmaking and shooting to go around in most lineups. I also argued for Marco Belinelli in the starting lineup for a few reasons, the main one being that Pop has been cautious with Gay, and consistency is key for that first five. Rudy clearly wants to play more, and his coach finally seems ok with that.

After beating the defending champs at home, the Spurs got on a plane to New Orleans to face off against the next-best offense in the Western Conference. With tired legs and an iffy gameplan, it didn’t go great for the silver and black. The defense was a step slow and a few inches too short all evening, and Aldridge faced the hard truth that Anthony Davis is a slightly more capable defender than Kevon Looney.

Aldridge finished the game 2/11 from the floor. Historically, he’s made the most of his matchups against the Brow, but it wasn’t happening on the second night of a back to back. Even though that became apparent rather immediately, Aldridge kept posting the big man and it kept resulting in poor shots.

Davis finished with 29 points and 9 boards despite some commendable individual defense by Aldridge. AD did most of his damage with actions involving multiple players, setting screens off ball and even running pick and roll. He also hit longer jumpers when left open, something Aldridge has also struggled with all year, but especially on the road.

DeRozan also struggled to find his shot, especially early in the game. One of the few downsides to having Rudy Gay starting is that he loves to play isolation ball. Not only does that leave Aldridge and DeMar spacing the floor (poorly), it also takes the ball out of DeRozan’s hands and makes it more difficult for him to get into a rhythm. DeRozan did impact the game in other ways, most notably by moving the ball to shooters out of the post and the pick and roll.

Bryn Forbes and Dante Cunningham combined for 9 threes in the first half, keeping the Spurs in the game even though the team defense was tired and overmatched. As well as those two shot, they both had a tough night defensively. You expect that from the diminutive Forbes, but Cunningham is in the game to play defense and he made a lot of uncharacteristic errors. He also simply isn’t big enough to check Julius Randle, who put up 21-14-10 in just 25 minutes.

Jakob Poeltl had a few tragic moments defensively, but he’s also a big long monkey wrench near the basket. It would have made sense for him to play more than 15 minutes considering the Spurs gave up an alarming 78 points in the paint. Playing him next to Aldridge would have helped open up LA’s post game a bit, and it also would have lessened the defensive burden that Cunningham could not carry on this night.

Aldridge was the biggest Spur on the court for most of the evening, and he struggled because of that. When he plays center against Kevon Looney, he should pound the ball and get that BBQ chicken. When he doesn’t have the matchup, he needs to screen for DeRozan and pop most of the time. If DeMar attacks toward the rim quickly enough, he’ll either get a good look at the rim, draw a double he can pass out of, or at least get Aldridge a favorable switch down low.

If DeRozan doesn’t play downhill, the big can easily return to Aldridge at the elbow and the action results in effectively nothing. DeMar drives more than anyone in the league, and he needs to keep doing that especially in the spread pick and roll. Aldridge posts up more than anyone in the league by a wide margin, but he ranks much lower in elbow touches despite shooting 45 percent when he gets the ball there.

On most nights, Aldridge will need to pick and pop more than he posts up if he wants to find his lost jumper.

 

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