In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be illuminating.
There are many things that separate football from basketball at the respective sports' highest levels, but one of the most notable is the element of secrecy. In football, coaches take extreme measures to make sure their opponents do not know what is coming. In basketball, the stealing of playcalls that got Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots fined is not only tolerated but actively encouraged in the form of advance scouts. To varying degrees, NBA teams don't care if the other team knows exactly what's coming as long as they cannot stop it.
Down the stretch, the Phoenix Suns take this to an extreme. It's no mystery what Alvin Gentry, like Mike D'Antoni before him, is going to call late in a close game--a steady diet of pick-and-rolls between Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire. Opponents need to find some way to stop two of the league's most potent offensive players.
In general, there are four options teams have to defend the pick-and-roll. They can have the defender on the ball go under the screen, giving the ballhandler an open jumper. Obviously, this strategy is rarely employed against the sharpshooting Nash. They can switch against the pick, creating mismatches. The defense can also send both defenders toward the point guard, trapping him but forcing their other three players to defend four offensive ones and potentially giving up an open shot. The last option, and the most popular one in the NBA, is to "hedge" or "show"--have the big man defending the screen setter jump into the path of the ballhandler and cut him off long enough to allow the defender on the ball to get back in position. The big man then recovers to defend his original man.
Like most of the league's elite defenses, the San Antonio Spurs have historically had a philosophy of hedging against the pick-and-roll. What has separated them from lesser defenses that use the same strategy is both the ability of their big men to handle the challenging defensive responsibilities placed on them and the quality of the rotations of the three players not directly involved in the pick-and-roll, who have to support the big man to keep the screen-setter from getting an easy score at the rim.
Gregg Popovich's strategy in three postseason wins over the Suns since 2005 has been to stay at home against Phoenix's shooters and play the pick-and-roll primarily with the two defenders involved in the play. This differentiates what San Antonio does defending the pick-and-roll from what we saw from Portland in the first round. The Blazers also generally hedged, though they occasionally mixed things up with traps or switches. However, they brought in a third defender to slow Stoudemire's roll to the basket, leaving them scrambling to cover the Suns on the perimeter. The result was Jason Richardson averaging 23.5 points and making 22 three-pointers in the series.
Having ranked ninth in the NBA in Defensive Rating this season, San Antonio no longer truly belongs in the discussion of the league's best teams on D. The way the Suns were able to run the pick-and-roll against the Spurs during the last five minutes of their Game Two victory on Wednesday helped illustrate why. San Antonio wasn't beaten from the perimeter like Portland was, but still wasn't able to get enough stops. In the last five minutes, Phoenix ran the high pick-and-roll on all eight of its half-court offensive possessions, scoring on five of them for a total of 10 points in the process of putting the game away.
The first three possessions demonstrated where Duncan, despite still being good enough to be voted to the NBA's All-Defensive Second Team earlier Wednesday, has lost a step defensively. With 4:35 left, Duncan lingered on the perimeter a bit too long, forcing Manu Ginobili to slide in and offer help. Ginobili was a half-step late, and instead of drawing a charge he was called for a blocking foul as Stoudemire scored and made the free throw. 30 seconds later, it was Duncan who fouled Stoudemire in the act when he was too late getting back to keep Stoudemire away from the basket. The last of the three possessions was perhaps the most troubling for Duncan, who got back in time to play Stoudemire about eight feet away from the basket. Stoudemire simply beat him, drawing another shooting foul and splitting two free throws.
Duncan would rally on the next possession, with a little over three minutes left and San Antonio clinging to life down eight points. The Suns' spacing was a bit off, as Grant Hill was unable to get out of the paint and draw his defender with him before Nash initiated the pick-and-roll. That left the middle of the floor crowded, and Nash forced a pass that Duncan deflected away for a steal. The following play could be called a draw; Stoudemire got an initial look close at the basket and a second attempt after grabbing his own rebound, but the Spurs did enough to force two misses.
Then came a play that was vintage Duncan. As the pick-and-roll was developing at the top of the key with just over two minutes left, Richardson beat George Hill with a backdoor cut and had what looked like an easy layup. Duncan, however, was able to fly in from the perimeter and get just enough to deflect the shot away. He wasn't officially credited with the block, but it looked to me like he got the basketball.
Having gone scoreless for three straight possessions, Phoenix adjusted after a timeout to ice the game. First, Gentry moved the pick-and-roll from the top of the key to the left elbow extended. The result was Duncan having to lay back more to protect the basket from Stoudemire, allowing Nash to drive and bank in a shot just outside the key. A second left-side pick-and-roll resulted in Stoudemire missing but again grabbing his own rebound. The Suns rest and ran the pick-and-roll again slightly off to the right of the top of the key. San Antonio defended well, but Richardson came off a curl and found enough airspace to knock down a jumper on what would be Phoenix's last true possession before the Spurs started fouling.
Now, giving up points to Stoudemire on the pick-and-roll isn't exactly new for San Antonio. Most famously, he averaged 37.0 points in the 2005 Western Conference Finals, a series the Spurs nonetheless won in five games. Still, the quality of the looks Phoenix got down the stretch has to be troubling for Popovich. Even on two of the three possessions where San Antonio got stops, the Suns were able to work the ball into the paint. It took Stoudemire missing two makeable shots and Duncan's block to deny Phoenix from scoring in those situations.
Should the Spurs find themselves in a similar situation in Game Three, which seems likely given how close this series has been, I think Popovich has to give some thought to altering his strategy. In Game Four of the first round, Portland was very successful switching the pick-and-roll in the fourth quarter. San Antonio's personnel isn't quite as well-suited to this task, since the Spurs lack a player like Nicolas Batum who is versatile enough to defend both Nash and Stoudemire, but George Hill may be big enough to front Stoudemire with help from the backside. When we've seen Phoenix go stagnant down the stretch, it has most frequently been because a switch forces Nash to create one-on-one against a bigger defender. He's certainly capable of getting to the basket off the dribble, but more often tends to simply shoot a long contested two, the shot the Spurs want to force.
Whether Popovich changes his team's strategy or not, the fact is this: Whether San Antonio can stop the Suns' pick-and-roll will go a long way toward determining whether the Spurs can get back in this series after going down 2-0.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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