Spurs vs. Mavericks: Gregg Popovich beats Rick Carlisle in first battle of defensive schemes

Chris Covatta

As expected, the Mavericks had some tricks up their sleeve for Game 1 of their first-round series. Problem is, the Spurs had more.

SB Nation 2014 NBA Playoff Bracket

Many folks in analytic circles believe coaching has a greater impact on defense than offense. If you look at the top defenses over the years, you'll usually find two things: a respected head coach and either an elite defensive big man or multiple All-Defense wings/guards. The top-25 offenses of all-time have a few questionable coaches in their ranks. The defenses generally don't, though I'll understand if you're withholding judgment on Indiana's Frank Vogel.

The series between the Spurs and Mavericks figured to be an offensive war. San Antonio finished the season No. 7 in offense and Dallas landed at No. 3. The Spurs also boast a great defense; the Mavericks, not so much. So in that sense, the series would be decided on whether Dallas could slow San Antonio at all and whether Dallas' offense could survive the Spurs' resistance.

In Game 1, the Mavericks definitely showed they could defend the Spurs well. But San Antonio's defense did an even better job, especially late, en route to victory. We shouldn't be surprised that Rick Carlisle figured out a way to trouble the Spurs despite having perhaps the league's worst defensive starting backcourt, and we should never be surprised when Gregg Popovich has a smart defensive gameplan executed to perfection. So, the projected offensive war turned into a defensive slog thanks to those two excellent coaches and some strong effort by key players.

The Mavericks switched relentlessly, resulting in a big man guarding Tony Parker and a small on Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter. Dallas also stayed home on three-point shooters, letting San Antonio attempt only 17 shots from behind the arc. Of those, the Spurs -- the No. 1 three-point shooting team in the league -- hit just three. The triples San Antonio did attempt were contested; Dallas forced Spurs guards and wings to take the ball off the bounce. That's not a problem for Parker or Manu Ginobili, who thrive moving to the rim. But that's death to single-minded gunners like Marco Belinelli and Danny Green. Green only attempted two shots in 23 minutes, and Belinelli got up four, two of them from range. They combined to go 0-6. Dallas didn't give them room to breathe.

The switching and commitment to guarding the three-point line let Duncan and Parker feast in the paint. Parker went 8-11 in the painted area and 1-5 outside. Duncan went 8-12 in the paint and 4-8 outside. (All of Duncan's shots outside the paint were within 16 feet.) But the Mavericks could concede those points inside so long as the Spurs didn't kill them from long-range, which they certainly did not.

All Dallas had to do was ride its elite offense to victory. That's where Popovich's defensive gambits came into play.

San Antonio absolutely hounded Dirk Nowitzki, daring the Dallas guards to beat them. It came to a head in the fourth quarter, when the Mavericks missed 12 straight shots in the final seven minutes and 45 seconds. With that much time remaining, Dallas led 81-71, within sniffing distance of a Game 1 stunner. They'd outscored San Antonio 16-6 in the first four minutes of the fourth, getting that double-digit lead on a Devin Harris-Brandan Wright pick-and-roll.

And from that moment on, the Spurs just shut Dallas down.

Harris couldn't get an open look over Duncan after coming around a screen. (0-1.) Nowitzki missed a challenged spot-up three. (0-2.) Another Harris-Wright pick-and-roll ended with a turnover. Kawhi Leonard doubled Nowitzki in the post from the backside to knock it out for a turnover. The Spurs goaded Monta Ellis into a pull-up 17-footer off the dribble. (0-3.) At this point, Parker and Duncan had led the Spurs on a scoring binge on the other end that tied the game.

After slick ball movement, Duncan came out of nowhere to block a one-legged Nowitzki shot. (0-4.) Splitter fought through screens to challenge Nowitzki off the curl. (0-5.) Ellis bricked a pull-up three (0-6) and Nowitzki couldn't finish the putback attempt (0-7). Vince Carter missed a relatively open spot-up three from the wing. (0-8.) After that miss, Parker gave the Spurs a four-point lead, and Carlisle called timeout.

Ellis missed an impossible, well-defended runner. (0-9.) Wright drew a foul on a neat drop-off from Carter to get a point from the line. Ellis kicked to Harris for a contested corner three. (0-10.) Carter missed a well-defended layup in traffic. (0-11.) A Splitter loose ball foul got Wright back to the line for another point. Spurs lead by five with 20 seconds to go. Carter misses a spot-up top-of-the-key three with 10 seconds left., with Ginobili in his grill. (0-12.) Game's over.

Coach Nick analyzes Game 1 on BBall Breakdown

All season, San Antonio's done it both ends. Dallas has had an incredibly efficient offense, and with Carlisle's smart gameplan and strong execution, the Mavericks were able to make the brilliant Spurs offense look pedestrian. But the thing they could always count on -- scoring from Nowitzki and Ellis -- just wasn't there because of Pop's plan to take them out and the Spurs' execution in doing so.

Now, we find out how Carlisle schemes to break the Spurs' defense and whether Pop can counter the Mavericks' switching defense to free up his shooters. Even if San Antonio runs away as expected, we have a great coaching match-up that should keep the series interesting throughout.


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