Pretend for a minute that you’re Gregg Popovich. Down by one on the road to the Los Angeles Lakers with just under 19 seconds remaining, who do you draw up a play for? Which of the Lakers defenders do you try to attack?
Do you go to Tim Duncan – the greatest power forward to ever play the game? He did just cut that lead to one point with a sweeping hook shot not 20 seconds earlier. You can give it to him in the post and let him go to work on Dwight Howard. That’s a tough proposition, but it’s Tim Duncan, you know you can trust him.
Or maybe you go to Tony Parker – the crafty veteran point guard who has already knocked down a game-winning jumper for you this season. Parker’s got 18 points already, and you know if you put the ball in his hands, he’ll get you a good shot. You can have him run a high pick-and-roll with Duncan where he can attack the basket off the bounce, and if that’s not there, hit Timmy on the roll. Parker has Ron Artest on him, but he’s got the speed advantage so you know he can turn the corner.
You could go for the element of surprise and call Stephen Jackson’s number. After all, he makes love to pressure. Captain Jack lives for situations like this, and he’s been there before. He’s been there for you before. He made huge shots for you in your 2003 Championship run, and gave you more of the same on the road to the Western Conference Finals last season. Jackson’s guarded by Pau Gasol, who really struggles defending in space. Get Jackson on the move, and he can get a nice look at the basket.
There’s another option, of course. Kawhi Leonard, the guy you’ve called the next face of the Spurs. Maybe you get him a look at a corner 3, or a cut to the basket. He’ll have Antawn Jamison – one of the worst defenders in the league – guarding him, so maybe you can even let him go on a dribble drive attack.
These are all appealing options, ones that you can understand any coach choosing. After all, those four guys had combined to score the previous 14 points for the Spurs. But Gregg Popovich chose none of them. Parker was barely involved in the play at all. Duncan just set a screen. Jackson was a decoy. Leonard was the passer.
Pop didn’t attack Dwight Howard – completely understandable. He didn’t go after Artest, despite the clear speed advantage Parker had. Pop stayed away from Jamison too, even though he’s the worst defender on the court. And he played the Lakers by making them think he might be going after Pau Gasol.
No. The guy Gregg Popovich decided he was going to take advantage of on this play was none other than Kobe Bryant.
Tony Parker brings the ball up the left side of the floor and hands it off to Tim Duncan at the top of the key. From this point forward, the only purpose Parker serves on the court is to ensure that Ron Artest – probably the Lakers best perimeter defender at this stage – is nowhere near the real action on the play.
Duncan runs a dribble hand-off with Kawhi Leonard moving from right to left, back toward Parker’s side of the court. Jackson feigns as if he’ll pop out toward the 3-point line on the right side, but once Duncan executes the hand-off with Leonard, he swings around and gets a back screen. This is really where the Lakers are already beat.
Jackson takes that back screen screen and heads to the opposite side of the court while Leonard dribbles toward the middle of the floor. Duncan rubs Leonard’s man to create a bit of separation, and then rolls down toward the post, where he’ll set a screen of his own, completing the screen for screener action.
“I thought it was a great call by Pop. I think a lot of people thought it’d be a play for me or for Timmy. We know that Kobe likes to cheat and stay in the paint, and so it was a wide-open 3 for Danny. A great shot, and I’m happy he made it.”
Tony Parker, via NBATV (h/t Dan Devine)
That’s Danny Green, by the way. Former North Carolina Tar Heel, Draft afterthought (he lasted until the 46th pick while his higher profile UNC teammates were all snatched up in the first round), waiver wire claim and guy who basically didn’t show up to the Western Conference Finals last season. Green hadn’t scored since the third quarter; he was 0-2 from the field in the fourth, and just 3-11 on the game.
Green’s been an afterthought nearly his entire career, and he was an afterthought on this play for everyone except Gregg Popovich, too.
Kobe overplayed in the lane so much that when he tried to recover and get back to his man, he got caught and ran right into his own man.
“(Popovich) drew up a play and said, ‘If you’re open, catch it and shoot it,’” Green said. “When he draws plays for the young guys like myself, it’s very rare and very surprising. You don’t expect it. It’s only my third year here, so for him to draw up a play for me, there was a lot of pressure on me. But you take the shot with the confidence he gives you.”
via Danny Green’s late 3 gives Spurs tight win vs. Lakers
That’s Pop for you. He’s unconventional and unexpected; he’s rare and surprising. But he gives his guys the confidence necessary to take and make shots like this, and it pays off.