Intricacies of the San Antonio Spurs’ motion offense have been well-documented in recent years, especially in the new age of the Internet scribe. The drive-and-kick attack predicated around floor-spacing, ball-movement, corner threes and, ya know, three future Hall-of-Famers, has been a consistent model for success since the team’s on-court management was transferred from Tim Duncan to Tony Parker. And you’ve seen the sets they run throughout the course of a game, designed to create too many options for a defense to handle and dependent on the mastery its playmakers are required to have of the subject.
But a new wrinkle dropped in the system’s blender has brought Duncan back into the mix. Ironically, the ‘pet play’ the Spurs have adopted this season was the very thing that brought them to their knees against Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals. Down the stretch of games, the Thunder would run a pin-down screen set for Kevin Durant, the league’s longest, rangiest, most talented scorer would pop up to the elbow and sink 16-foot jumpers in the face of whichever player was guarding him. It was a nightmare for San Antonio, considering a smaller guard would often get the switched defensive assignment off the pick. Durant has length on anyone who defends him (I’m pretty sure he’s like 7-foot-3 by now), so putting him in that position gives him a great opportunity to succeed.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. And the Spurs did just that, to an extent.
And I say this in jest, as San Antonio has used a version of the pin-down play over the last several years, just not this often and not this well-executed. The formula is fairly simple: Take your longest, most talented offensive player and put him in a position that creates a mismatch or causes the defense to scramble. For this team, Duncan is that player.
According to mySynergySports.com, the frequency with which the Spurs have run this play has doubled in the last year, and has basically quadrupled since the year before that. Still, it has evolved from a pretty basic high-low set to one with multiple options along the baseline and perimeter, even if Duncan is unable to get a clean look.
During the 2010-11 season, you could count the number of times San Antonio used this play on your hands. This year, they’re using it to win games.
To get a cleaner look at the options the Spurs have out of this set, let’s look at it from a standpoint that features the pin-down during a more fluid portion of the game, not in the final seconds. This example was run earlier in the same game. Once Kawhi Leonard receives the ball on the right wing, he’s basically in the same position as he was as the inbounder in the video above.
As most San Antonio sets do, this one utilizes misdirection to open up shooters. Parker gets the ball to Leonard on the wing while Ginobili sets a cross-screen from one block to the other in order to free up Duncan. At the same moment, Parker runs through to the near corner and waits for Duncan to pop out for a baseline screen. Once Manu has cleared the man he’s screening, Boris Diaw positions himself at the left elbow to set a pick on the defender chasing Ginobili.
Once the ball is moved to Manu at the top of the key and Parker has run off the screen to clear the nearside baseline, Leonard and Duncan move into a weak-side two-man game where the Spurs’ small forward runs toward the lane before breaking off to set a pick for the big man.
Again, it’s important for the screener to be a perimeter player, as the player defending him will most likely be of similar stature. With an unexpected off-ball screen, it’s probable the defense will switch once the pick is set, giving the big man a reasonably good look if the play is successful. In this case, Caron Butler is defending Leonard, and the best-case scenario ended up materializing. Butler basically disregarded Duncan popping off the screen.
As you can see, there’s nobody in Duncan’s vicinity once he receives the ball. Given how much the big man has improved as a mid-range jump-shooter, this shot is basically automatic. The Spurs got exactly what they wanted. Still, if it did not work the way they had planned, you can see the secondary option forming on the back side.
Once Parker cleared out to the other side of the lane, the Spurs’ point guard prepared to set a back-screen for Manu along with Diaw at the elbow. If Duncan would’ve received the ball and been unable to get a shot off, the French duo was prepared to free Ginobili with a double screen for a flare-out 3-point attempt. It’s what has made the Spurs so effective offensively: even if the first option doesn’t work, there will almost always be a secondary and tertiary look that materializes organically through the flow of the offense. However, when it’s used in an end-of-game situation such as what’s in the video up top, San Antonio is restricted to what the clock affords it.
The Spurs successfully ran this play three times in this particular game — the third being Duncan’s game-winner — something that was not commonplace throughout the season. San Antonio was typically picky about when they’d use it, and it was the only time this year it was drawn up as a final-second play to that point. But given the success they had running it throughout this March 29 matchup with the Clippers, Popovich took one more chance against a defensive scheme orchestrated by Vinny Del Negro.
And the Spurs didn’t need anything other than the first option.
But don’t look for this play three times a game or in succession down the stretch. The Thunder were able to deploy it over and over again because of the versatility Durant provides them in that situation. San Antonio picks and chooses the spots where it is used, and normally it shows up when the Spurs need a basket. Whether it’s late in the third quarter or in the final seconds, it’s something this team has consistently gone to in close games, however infrequently they’ve occurred.
If anything, it’s an indication of the evolution of this offense, and it shows how significantly the almost 37-year-old Duncan has improved his mid-range game.
So much for not being able to teach an old dog new tricks.
Images courtesy of NBA.com.