SAN ANTONIO — The biggest strength for the Spurs offensively is their biggest weakness defensively, and after blowing out Portland with what they do best, they got exposed for what they do worst in Golden State.
It's one of the oldest and simplest plays in the game, but mastery of the pick and roll on either side of the ball still determines your fate on most nights in the NBA.
San Antonio has run theirs to great effect this season, limiting turnovers better than anyone in the league, creators finding good or great shots for themselves and teammates. It starts with DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge running pick and pop. DeRozan's ability to attack the rim leads defenses to go under the screen and sometimes have the big man drop, focusing on the basket.
That's how Portland played, and in doing so they gave LaMarcus Aldridge open shot after open shot, and this year from mid-range he's hitting 54.5% of his attempts from that area this year in part because he's getting open in the flow of the offense, getting easy open looks off a feed from a teammate instead off grinding for a contested fader in the post.
He's only 11-44 from deep to start the year, and while that's a bit disappointing given his offseason focus on spacing the floor, he can still improve that number. Even if he doesn't, he can still provide spacing and complimentary play in his own way. The Warriors, however, watched that Portland tape and limited Aldridge to just 4 points.
San Antonio's shooters needed to step up, but they shot just 4-33 from deep. Golden State's activity level was fantastic, as most of the shots San Antonio got looked pretty open until someone fully committed to a late closeout.
If the defense decides to not allow Aldridge to comfortably shoot from his spot at the top of the key, DeRozan can use the screen to beat his man and then go on a rack attack. If the defense rotates he finds the open man with ease, averaging 7.1 assists and 1.7 turnovers this year. His percentage in the restricted area isn't great this season, but that's because he commands so much attention on drives.
DeRozan and Dejounte Murray pressure the rim as initiators, and while Aldridge's main function as a big man is spacing to facilitate that, Jakob Poeltl is a dangerous rim runner as his backup.
By moving the ball to the middle of the floor, attacking the paint and breaking down the defense, San Antonio creates open looks at the arc for guys like Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills, and Devin Vassell. All of them can knock down threes, and if that's not there they can choose the correct course of action to continue building on the advantage by driving or finding a teammate.
The floor spacers don't just stand there either, they're moving intelligently and getting each other open
San Antonio is in the middle of a three game stretch of defending the pick and roll against guards who are different animals when it comes to shot creation, and shot location. Damian Lillard, Steph Curry and Luka Doncic are top-five point guards in the league, all with shifty handles, spectacular vision and eye-popping range.
Dame scored 35 against the Spurs, and after the game Coach Popovich and the guys felt they'd done a decent job on him. In a way they did, as he shot 10-23 from the floor and 3-10 from deep while turning it over 5 times with 6 assists. Lillard's supporting cast was limited without CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, and San Antonio definitely dodged a few bullets.
For the next game in Golden State, Steph was on and his teammates were too. His gravity as a shooter is that of a planet collapsing in on itself, and he's getting into a groove with rookie James Wiseman, the best roller he's ever had.
Here are the rules of defending Steph (and Dame) in the pick and roll:
- Big man can't drop. That's an open three.
- Guard can't go under the screen. That's an open three.
- Guard can't go over the screen too fast, or he'll make you foul him on a three.
The further Wiseman set the screen, the further it pulled LaMarcus Aldridge from the basket. Aldridge doesn't have the footspeed to hedge at Curry and then get back and slow Wiseman's roll in a meaningful way, especially when the race starts in Curry range.
This essentially forces a double team on Curry, giving Wiseman a free run to the hoop with only wing defenders getting a chance to step in and maybe foul him, or probably get dunked on.
Steph also does a magical job of keeping his dribble alive and finding shots for himself and teammates anywhere he sees weakness. On Wednesday night, he created the weakness.
Even when the play wasn't going his way, he recovered, attacked, drew multiple defenders and found guys like Wiseman, who put up a career-high 18 points on 8-11 shooting.
Aldridge's consistent ineffectiveness here is concerning. It's easy to see him improving his shot and providing more spacing, but much harder to see him getting quicker or more athletic to help on defense and the boards. He may very well be approaching that precipitous physical drop off that every big man and indeed every player reaches eventually, at which point any offensive contributions become less important than the near-constant defensive liability.
Jakob Poeltl has a better chance defending these young athletic roll men, and he's been playing more minutes and rounding into form recently.
On the topic of defensive liabilities, you can't control Steph or Dame going off, but you can control who guards them. There were stretches of both games when Patty Mills drew the assignment, and well, that shouldn't happen ever again.
Not much worked against Steph, but the box-and-1 defense is one that has proven somewhat effective in the singular mission of limiting Curry. Most notably it was used by the Raptors in the Finals, when Steph was really the only option for the Warriors.
This is a "junk" defense that teams use to muck things up and key in on one guy. While Curry's gravity rips man defenses apart at the seams, this strategy leans into the gravity, sticking the best defender on Curry and having four guys play zone around them, meaning anywhere Steph goes he'll be denied the ball or doubled.
It's the ultimate sign of respect for an individual player, and Pop said he liked the way it worked. Curry managed to score on it because he's a magician, and he found teammates because it was easy, but the Spurs also forced a few turnovers.
The wheels of the Warrior machine were turning too fast for those bits of gum to slow them down in any meaningful way, but it was the tastiest defense we saw all game while the flavor lasted.
San Antonio's next opportunity to defend a dominant point guard is Friday when they take on Luka Doncic's Mavericks. He's got all the tools and is averaging nearly a 26-point triple double on the season, and his pick and roll partner is a 7'3" unicorn in Kristaps Porzingis.