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San Antonio Spurs defensive principles

I discovered a new BLOG through the Fast Model, FastDraw family of coaches… 48 Minutes of Hell.  Pretty good stuff, very detailed and really good use of FastDraw diagramming tool.

Real good entry on San Antonio Spurs defensive principles.

Bruce Bowen

Chances are, if you’re a regular reader of this blog you have a pretty good idea of what the San Antonio Spurs like to do, and avoid, on the defensive end of the floor.

But from time-to-time, I find it helpful to review things to keep them fresh in my head. And seeing as it’s mid-August and the NBA is on vacation, I thought we’d take a look at a couple of the bedrock principles of the Spurs’ defense.

Force guards away from the middle of the floor
It’s easy to boil it down to this: when the ball-handler gets to the middle and into the lane, bad things happen. This is because the offensive player has options. And the basic premises of defense are to limit the number of ways the offense can score and make it as hard as possible for them to do that.

When opposing guards get into the lane, they cause damage. They get good looks at the basket, find open teammates and draw fouls. A ball-handler in the middle of the lane usually has a better look at the basket than when forced towards the sideline or baseline. Additionally, he probably got past the defender guarding him en route to the lane. This means other defenders will have to rotate over to help on the ball-handler, leaving other offensive players open if the ball-handler can find them with a good pass.

In the play diagrammed below, Steve Nash got to the lane against the Spurs defense late in Game 2 of the teams’ Western Conference Semifinal series. The Suns had a eight point lead with about a minute left in the game. It’s a pretty significant advantage that late in the game, but not insurmountable. On the play, Nash used a pick at the top of the 3-point arc from Amar’e Stoudemire to get by George Hill and into the lane.

When Nash got into the lane, he had Hill on his right hip and a decent look at the basket. Almost every Spur on the floor had at least one foot in the lane and none were farther than two feet away.

Nash kicked the ball out to Jason Richardson, who blew past Manu Ginobili. Manu was a step outside the lane helping on Nash’s penetration and tried to closeout on Richardson, but Richardson got by him and hit the jumper at the elbow to finish off the game.

But it wasn’t all bad defensively against the Suns. Earlier in that same game, George Hill had a great defensive possession against Nash. The Suns point guard dribbled to the left wing and looked to get the ball in the post to Stoudemire, who was fronted by DeJuan Blair. Blair did a good job fronting Stoudemire, as he’s learned to do, and Nash was unable to get the ball in the post.

After determining he couldn’t get an entry pass into Stoudemire, Nash gave George Hill a quick shoulder fake toward the middle and went baseline. Hill stayed with Nash the whole time and rode him toward the baseline without needing help defense to come and stop the ball. Nash tried to find a teammate but stepped on the baseline before he got a pass off and turned the ball over.

Notice in the video of the play, Hill’s footwork. His body is angled with his back to the middle to encourage Nash to go baseline.

Do not give up the corner 3-pointer, otherwise you face the wrath of Coach Pop
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich’s next hard-and-fast rule on defense is to prevent the opponent from getting a corner 3. Coach Pop believes that the corner 3 is one of the most effective shots in basketball, which is why the Spurs look for so many corner 3′s on offense and try to prevent all of them on defense.

Luckily for Spurs fans, but not so much for me, it’s hard to find a video clip of San Antonio rotating improperly and allowing an open corner 3. However, Eddy Rivera from Magic Basketball had a great post this week about the 2/5 (or shooting guard and center) pick and roll play that Orlando uses. In that post, he had a video where the Atlanta Hawks make a rotation that would make Coach Pop’s blood boil.

Vince Carter brought the ball up-court for Orlando and Marcin Gortat came up to set a pick on Marvin Williams, who’s guarding Carter. Carter rubbed off the pick and attacked the basket. From the corner, Joe Johnson of the Hawks rotated over to stop Carter’s progress to the basket.

In doing so, Johnson left Mickael Pietrus, a 38% 3-point shooter last season, open in the corner. Carter takes the shot himself – because he’s Vince Carter – and makes it, but Pietrus would’ve been a good option.

Had the Spurs been the defensive team on this play, there would’ve been an immediate timeout called and, chances are, the guy who left Pietrus open wouldn’t have emerged from the huddle. You may remember last year a situation in which when San Antonio played the Detroit Pistons, Tony Parker allowed a 3-pointer from Rodney Stuckey and a spat between Parker and Coach Pop occurred. Parker was taken out of the game as a punishment.

Instead, the way the Spurs defend that play is to rotate help defenders from the other side of the floor. Johnson would stay on Pietrus, denying the pass to him, and Jamal Crawford, guarding Jameer Nelson in the opposite corner, would’ve rotated over to stop the ball. Because Nelson in the corner is still a decent pass for Carter to make, Josh Smith, guarding Rashard Lewis near the top of the key, would’ve slid down to prevent a pass to Nelson in the corner.

Lewis, a good 3-point shooter, is open near the top of the key, but for Carter to make that pass he would have to stop and turn. That would enable any defender, whether it’s Josh Smith or someone else, time to recover and prevent Lewis from getting a good shot.

The video below, from Game 1 of the Spurs-Suns series, shows San Antonio denying a corner 3 opportunity. Steve Nash beats Tony Parker off the dribble and Richard Jefferson, defending Grant Hill in the corner, doesn’t flinch. As Nash drives in his direction, Jefferson inches closer to Hill. Instead, you can see the help defense come from Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. Antonio McDyess fulfills his duty to cover Ginobili’s man in the opposite corner. Nash ends up dribbling the ball out of bounds.

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