Breaking Down How San Antonio Spurs Free the 3-Point Shooter
Watch enough film of the San Antonio Spurs offense and you will build up an immunity to their whirring brand of side-to-side ball and player movement. It's so intricate, so controlled, so precise that it's almost able to convince you that every offense looks that way. Of course, that's not the case, and it takes just a few minutes of watching any other team to recognize that.
Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan don't play for all the teams, they just play for the one--and that makes San Antonio's cascading scoring show a special one. While there are probably more people insisting the Spurs aren't boring than those who still think they are these days, there still lingers a misconception that the Spurs play a traditional brand of basketball rather than a progressive one.
Popovich's bunch was one of the first to recognize the true value of the three-pointer, and particularly the corner three-pointer. As the team has transitioned from an offense that featured Duncan as the focal point to one where Parker's pick-and-roll game is the fulcrum, they've prioritized speed, versatility and shooting.
Though they only featured three high-volume three-point shooters who shot a better than league average percentage this season, the volume of shots those three took was enough to ensure that San Antonio ranked fourth in the league in three-point field goal percentage.
Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Matt Bonner are three of the league's premier snipers, and while they'll often wind up with similar amounts of open space when lining up a long range attempt, the way the Spurs create the open looks for each player is slightly different.
Even though he added a few new wrinkles to his offensive repertoire this year, Leonard was still mostly a straight spot-up option. Nearly a third of his total plays (defined as possessions ended with a FGA, FTA or TO) this season were spot-ups, according to mySynergySports, and 174 of his 211 three-point attempts (including playoffs) were of the spot-up variety.
In the video above, Leonard winds up with the ball in the exact same spot on two different possessions. The first is the result of continuous ball movement drawing the help defense away from him while he camps out in the corner, and the second is the result of him moving, fading, drifting until eventually settling in the corner, where the ball just seems to find him.
Leonard takes most of his threes from that corner spot, which also happens to be where he's most effective—while he was 52 of 121 from the corners during the regular season, he was just 13 of 53 above the break. The right corner where both of those shots came from is his true sweet spot; he shot 49.0 percent there this season, per NBA.com.
So far in San Antonio's playoff run, Leonard is 9-of-25 from the corners (a respectable 36 percent) and 6-of-11 above the break. When Golden State went to a zone against the Spurs in their first-round series, San Antonio experimented with setting some flare screens on the side of the zone to free Leonard for open looks.
It's something you don't often see them do for Leonard, because they're busy running that type of action for...
Green, a waiver-wire castoff plucked from the Cleveland Cavaliers after they cut him in 2010, is San Antonio's most prolific three-point shooter. He averaged 5.2 three-point attempts per game this season, 20th most in the league. Per 36 minutes, he attempted nearly as many threes as Stephen Curry. He connected on 42.9 percent of those attempts, good enough for seventh-best among qualified players.
Green does his fair share of spotting up in the corner and waiting for the ball to come to him out of a Parker-Duncan or Parker-Tiago Splitter pick-and-roll a la Leonard, but he also is a main beneficiary in two of the Spurs' most crucial play actions: the zipper and the hammer.
The video above—courtesy of YouTube user Zak Boisvert—shows two different flare screen options out of the zipper series for Green. Green starts off each play by making the zipper cut from the low block to the top of the key, where he receives the ball from Parker. After Parker runs off a pair of screens on the opposite side of the court, Green gets the ball back to him. This is where the two plays start to differ.
In the first iteration, Parker runs his pick-and-roll back toward the middle of the court, while Green drifts to the weak side wing, being freed by a flare screen from Duncan. In the second version, Parker takes the screen and roll toward the baseline. It's a harder pass to make, but it's arguably more effective because the goal of the play is better hidden.
Either way, the screen from Duncan is the key to the whole thing. Without that, there might not be enough space for the shot.
Similarly, that's how Green winds up open on San Antonio's hammer play.
Green does a lot of moving around before he gets into position here, but he winds up with the same corner three looks that Leonard usually gets. Green and Leonard were one of three pairs of teammates to each make at least 50 threes from the corner—±where Green shot 43.2 percent—this season.
This play action can also be out of the zipper series (notice the cut Leonard makes to start things off on the first play in the video above), and again the screen is the key to creating enough space for the attempt. The pick-and-roll is purposely run toward the baseline and often the passer will drift out of bounds to give himself a better angle to find the shooter (most often Green) on the opposite side of the court.
Bonner was the best three-point shooter on the team of those who received regular minutes this season, nailing 44.2 percent of his 1.8 attempts per game. While he, much like Leonard, was almost exclusively a spot-up threat (110 of his 148 three-point attempts have been of the spot-up variety), he's shown throughout the playoffs that he can work well enough as a pick-and-pop three-point threat as well.
San Antonio's offense has long hit astronomical highs whenever Bonner took the court, and this postseason he's played defense well enough to keep himself out there, even against bruising power forwards like Zach Randolph.
His ability to space the floor puts so much pressure on defenders not used to having to chase shooters on the perimeter, and every time both defenders chase Parker or Manu Ginobili on a high pick-and-roll, they're just asking for Bonner to beat them with the three ball.
Leonard, Green and Bonner are San Antonio's primary snipers, but Ginobili deserves special mention for how odd his three-point shooting profile is within the context of this particular team. He's basically the only player on the squad afforded the freedom from Popovich to take threes off the dribble. Despite missing 22 games this season, Ginobili has taken nearly as many threes as a pick-and-roll ball handler (50) as Parker, Leonard, Green and Gary Neal combined (53).
Sometimes this leads to rushed shots and highly contested looks, but Ginobili's such an experienced bad shot maker that Popovich seemingly welcomes the tradeoff. The screen-setting ability of Duncan and Splitter gives him enough room a lot of the time, but his trigger is so quick that it often doesn't matter how much space he has, he can still get off a pretty good shot.
No matter who the Spurs end up facing in the NBA Finals, they'll need their three-point attack to show up. Indiana was the league's best team at defending the three this season, while Miami's aggressive style of defense often leaves them vulnerable to teams that get hot from the outside. Knowing Popovich, his team will find a way to make them pay.
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