Thanks to an especially generous call on a stolen pass by Kawhi Leonard on Thabo Sefolosha (Leonard fouled him), the Spurs got the ball back down three points to the Oklahoma City Thunder with 15 seconds left in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. This gave Gregg Popovich, one of the greatest tacticians this game has ever seen, a chance to draw up a game-tying play. As it turns out, the Spurs got a decent three-point look for Manu Ginobili, but it fell just short, ending the Spurs' upset bid.
But was it a good play? First, check it out yourself.
Before we answer the above question, we have to acknowledge that it's very hard to draw up a good play to get a three-pointer in that situation. The degree of difficulty was very, very high. Popovich's play had multiple options and was at least well executed, which is more than you can say about most plays in this situation.
That said, there's also a lot I didn't like about the play. Let's start with the basics: down three with 15 seconds left, it probably made more sense to be more vigilant about getting a quick two-pointer and extending the game. Instead, it looks like the plan was to get the game-tying three right away.
More specifically, I'm not a huge fan of two key elements of the play: sending the ball-handler to the sidelines, and using Tim Duncan as the screener.
The play featured Ginobili and Duncan running a screen and roll, with Ginobili catching the ball in the middle of the floor going left. Ginobili made contact with Duncan, but the Thunder trapped him, forcing a very difficult pass back to Duncan around the three-point line.
I know coaches do this a lot, but I don't like sending Ginobili to the sidelines. To me, it makes him easier to trap and, frankly, Popovich was lucky in many ways that Ginobili somehow made that pass. A lesser player would have been swallowed up by that trap. This is the risk with sending the ball to the sidelines. If you keep the ball in the middle of the floor, it makes it nearly impossible to double team.
The other reason that the Thunder trapped, though, is the other reason I didn't like that play. Save for a shocking attempt to sink the Phoenix Suns in the 2008 NBA Playoffs, Tim Duncan doesn't shoot three-pointers. Knowing this, the Thunder left him to cut off Ginobili's drive, then hesitated to get back to him. Duncan took a look at the basket but, as the Thunder expected, his instincts kicked in and he didn't take the shot, instead looking to dish back to Ginobili.
Then again, maybe Popovich had no choice. A better strategy may have been to put in another three-point shooter, but Matt Bonner had been on the bench for nearly the whole game, and nobody else (maybe not even Bonner either) could be counted on to set a good screen.
All that said, Popovich's play design made it too easy for the Thunder to ignore Duncan. Ginobili eventually got an OK look ducking behind the screen, but he was fading away, a lot of time had ticked off and he had already run all the way across the court. This was a tougher shot than it looks.
Again: it's hard as hell to run a good play in this situation, and the Thunder's defense deserves a lot of credit. But I think Popovich may have made a couple miscalculations sending the screen to the sidelines and making it easy for the Thunder to trap Ginobili.
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