If you had told me the Spurs would have handled the Heat's traps better than the Pacers did, I wouldn't have been surprised. No team moves the ball faster than San Antonio, and you have to be able to do that to avoid being swallowed up in Miami's pressure.
But if you had told me the Spurs would have four turnovers for the entire game, including just two in the final 43 and a half minutes? That would have shocked me. But that's exactly what happened in the Spurs' 92-88 victory in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
For perspective: during the regular season, Miami forces a turnover on 16.5 percent of their defensive possessions, good for fourth in the league. During the playoffs, they've done so on 17.6 percent of their defensive possessions. San Antonio, on the other hand, committed a turnover on just 4.6 percent of their possessions in Game 1.
How did San Antonio navigate Miami's traps so well? There are a few things the Spurs did that merit a closer look.
SCREENS THAT ACTUALLY DID THEIR JOB
It seems like an elementary thing, but when a big man actually makes contact on a high ball screen, it changes the equation for a team that plans to trap like Miami. Instead of having the guard and the big man converging on the ball-handler, you just have the big man. Clearly that's an easier situation for a ball-handler to manage.
Tim Duncan, in particular, was on his game with his picks in Game 1. Look at how he takes Mario Chalmers out of the play on this high pick-and-roll late in the second quarter.
With Chalmers well behind the play, Parker must only beat Joel Anthony to get into the paint. Unsurprisingly, he does.
Here's another example of Duncan flattening Chalmers from early in the first quarter, giving Parker a one-on-one situation with Udonis Haslem.
Parker missed the pull-up jumper, but it's a really good look the Spurs will take every time they can get it.
These were just two effective screens the Spurs set to avoid having their ball-handler be trapped. I say "effective," though, because they may not be legal. Notice how Duncan is moving into Chalmers on this second one.
That's the kind of illegal screen that sometimes gets called and sometimes doesn't. Will the Spurs get whistled for those more often as the series goes on?
I've written before about the Spurs' common practice of having their big men come in parallel to the primary defender and "choosing" which side to screen him on based on his coverage, a timing maneuver that almost nobody else is capable of pulling off. We saw the Spurs employ this strategy a couple times in Game 1 of the Finals with great success. The Heat anticipated the screen going one way and were caught out of position when the Spurs switched the side of the pick-and-roll at the last minute.
Notice how Duncan is setting up alongside Chalmers on this screen-and-roll well outside the three-point line.
Parker is currently dribbling with his right hand, but he could easily cross back over to the left and get past Chalmers as Duncan rotates his position slightly. To account for this, you'll notice Anthony react slowly when Parker ends up going right anyway. That is all Parker needs to get to the basket and draw a foul.
The Spurs will also set two screens on the same play to keep the Heat honest. The first screen essentially acts as a decoy to pull Miami out of position, making the second screen even more effective. Notice how Miami traps the decoy screen on this play early in the first quarter.
The Spurs, though, have no intention of actually creating anything out of this screen. Parker's only job is to maintain his dribble long enough for Chris Bosh to think the play is contained and begin his retreat back into position. It's only when Bosh darts back that Parker begins the play the Spurs actually want to run. This time, Miami doesn't have time to perfectly set up its defense.
These are not massive breakdowns by the Heat. Chalmers is slightly out of position on the ball, and Bosh is somewhat on his heels, but to the naked eye, this looks like decent coverage of a high screen-and-roll. However, those little cracks are enough for San Antonio to exploit, using its superior ball movement to create an excellent look in the left corner for Danny Green.
Because the Spurs set so many different kinds of ball screens, it's tough for the defense to key in on any single one. That split second of hesitation is all San Antonio needs.
Speaking of split seconds of hesitation, that's the effect of San Antonio's misdirection, used to perfection on multiple occasions in Game 1. The Spurs are masters at pretending like one play is being run, then going into another play before the defense can react.
They used misdirection to set up a crucial three-pointer by Green with just over two minutes remaining. At first glance, this looks like a standard pick-and-roll to get Parker going towards the basket and away from LeBron James' watchful eye.
But all is not what it seems. The Spurs are actually planning a multiple-pass series of triggers that are designed to either get Duncan or Green the ball. Rather than attack the basket, Parker dribbles out and feeds Ginobili on the opposite side.
From here, all Ginobili must do is read the defense. The Spurs had been victimized by Mike Miller's aggressive help rotations to cut off the roll man earlier in the game, so this time, they set up a play that will open up Miller's man, Green, if Miller helps again. Sure enough, Duncan rolls, Miller drops down and this cross-court pass to Green is suddenly open.
Miller is way too far into the lane to recover and Green hits a huge shot.
Despite all this, though, the biggest reason San Antonio expertly navigated Miami's traps is ...
PARKER, DUNCAN AND MANU ARE GREAT
It's one thing to have great schemes, but those are useless when lesser players are occupying the roles these three play. How many players can make it seem like they're trying to throw a pass to the corner, then instead throw it to the roll man when the Heat's backline defender takes a step away, all in midair or off the back foot? Tony Parker can.
Manu Ginobili can too. (Apologies for the crop on this one).
And then there's Duncan, who is so smart and so skilled as a playmaker when he gets the ball in 4-on-3 situations. Note all the things he does on this crucial play to draw a foul with just over a minute remaining.
In this sequence, Duncan:
- Immediately slipped the screen once he saw Miami's trap.
- Caught the ball on the move.
- Gave Bosh -- who was behind him at the time -- a beautiful pump fake.
- Maneuvered around him to draw the foul.
Very few bigs in the league could do all the things Duncan did there.
The Spurs won't commit just four turnovers again, but this game showed why they are so difficult to trap. The Heat will have to be even more precise with their style, or they may need to consider abandoning the traps and trying something different. It's just that difficult to throw off San Antonio's rhythm.
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