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Breaking Down How San Antonio Spurs Are Defending Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol

SAN ANTONIO, TX - APRIL 21:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs reaches for the ball against Dwight Howard #12 of the Los Angeles Lakers during Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at  at AT&T Center on April 21, 2013 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Jared DubinFeatured ColumnistApril 22, 2013

The San Antonio Spurs made relatively quick work of the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of their first-round series on Sunday, but they didn’t do it in the way you would expect. The Spurs didn’t carve up the suspect Lakers defense; rather, they held L.A.’s offense in check.

A big key to this was the way San Antonio defended pick-and-rolls. 

With Kobe Bryant out and Steve Nash hobbled due to injury, the strength of the Lakers is their big men—Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard.

The Spurs crafted their pick-and-roll defense strategy around those two pillars, forcing Lakers ball-handlers to take a disproportionate number of shots as compared to Howard and Gasol on the roll.

According to the video tracking service mySynergySports, the Lakers finished 26 plays with a shot, turnover or foul drawn by a pick-and-roll ball-handler or roll man. Of those 26 plays, only six were completed by the roll man, compared to 20 by the ball-handler. In those 20 plays, Lakers ball-handlers finished 3-for-17 from the field. 

Yuck.

The Spurs defended nearly every pick-and-roll the exact same way: The man being screened fought over the top while the big man—either Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter—hung back near the free-throw line to cut off any potential driving lane. This created a pocket of space near the elbow, which Nash and Steve Blake more than willingly dribbled into time and time again. 

With all that seemingly open real estate, Nash and Blake repeatedly pulled up for mid-range jumpers, otherwise known as the least efficient shot in the game.

Only 22.5 percent of the Lakers’ total field-goal attempts during the regular season were of the mid-range variety, per NBA.com, but that number shot all the way up to 39.7 percent in Game 1, largely due to the Spurs allowing them to take those shots out of pick-and-roll—12 of L.A.’s 29 mid-range shots on Sunday were taken by their pick-and-roll ball-handlers (via mySynergySports). 

Again and again, the Spurs had their big man hang back near the free-throw line to create that enticing pocket of space. They even did it when the Lakers went to their 4-5 pick-and-roll with Gasol and Howard.

Duncan, meanwhile, is at the bottom of the free-throw circle, defending against both a drive and a possible lob pass to Howard. 

So Gasol makes the same choice Nash and Blake made over and over again; he takes the mid-range jumper, a choice that the Spurs will absolutely live with.

Even on plays where you would normally see almost every team in the league send their big man to attack the ball-handler—namely, side pick-and-rolls—the Spurs hung back and forced the Lakers into inefficient shots.

Rather than “down” or “ice” these plays (which, it should be noted, is how they dealt with Chris Paul–Blake Griffin side pick-and-rolls in last year’s playoffs), the Spurs stuck with their strategy.

The Spurs know better than most all about the inefficiencies of the game, and if they have to take their chances with the Lakers getting mid-range jumpers to deny the ball to Howard and Gasol as they roll to the rim, they’ll happily do it. 

Though it was extremely successful in limiting the Lakers in Game 1, it may not hold throughout the series. L.A. shot just 31.3 percent from the field in the area surrounding the free throw-line on Sunday, while they shot 44.2 percent from that area throughout the regular season, per NBA.com.

A few more makes and the Lakers would have been right in the game in the fourth quarter, rather than down by double digits. 

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