They attempt to cut off pick-and-rolls at the head by trapping the ball-handler as he comes around the screen, counting on the athleticism of their back-line defenders to close up any holes that may open as a result of the double-team. They aggressively front post-up players to deny the entry pass, again relying on their collective speed, length and pinpoint rotations to plug any leaks behind the play.
In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs elected to counter that aggression with patience, routinely pursuing secondary and tertiary options within their sets.
There are a few tried-and-true ways to beat a fronting defense. The first—and probably most commonly used—is to flash a player to the free-throw-line area, swing the ball there and have him throw an entry pass over the top of the defense.
Against Miami, the Spurs tried something different.
Here, Udonis Haslem aggressively fronts Tim Duncan in the post in an effort to deny an entry pass from Kawhi Leonard on the wing. Notice the placement of the other Spurs on the court; they're all drawing their man out of the lane. Tiago Splitter brings Chris Bosh out to the top of the key, Tony Parker runs Mario Chalmers into the corner and Manu Ginobili spaces the floor on the weak side.
Leonard drives directly at the front, while Duncan converts his post-up attempt into a screen, sealing off the only available help defender with a chance to disrupt Leonard's jaunt to the rim. Dwyane Wade—who was guarding Ginobili—tries to meet Leonard at the rim, but he's too late, and the challenge means Ginobili is wide open with no one within about 10 feet of him if Leonard were to pass.
Later in the quarter, Danny Green encounters a similar situation.
LeBron is again guarding the ball, but this time it's Bosh fronting Duncan in the post because the Heat have gone to a "small" lineup with Bosh at center, LeBron at power forward and Mike Miller at small forward. So Green, like Leonard before him, drives directly at the front, and look what happens.
Duncan again turns his post-up attempt into a screen, effectively sealing off Bosh from being able to provide help. Because of this, Wade has to slide across the lane from his position defending Leonard in the weak-side corner to prevent a layup. In turn, Chalmers has to drop down to cut off a pass to the weak-side corner, and it leaves poor Mike Miller stuck guarding both Ginobili and Gary Neal.
Four defenders converge on Green, Green kicks it out to Ginobili, Ginobili delivers a touch pass to Neal, and Neal drains an open three-pointer.
Another way to beat the front is to simply ignore it and pursue a different option. That's what Danny Green does when presented with this look.
Bosh fronts Splitter in the post while Tony Parker comes off a double pin-down screen from Leonard and Duncan on the weak side.
Rather than try to force the ball to Splitter, Green just gives him a quick look and swings it to Parker at the top of the key. Splitter then comes up to set a screen for Parker, kicking off a pick-and-roll. He draws two defenders at the basket, throws it crosscourt to Leonard in the corner and continues cutting along the baseline, where he receives the ball back from Leonard for a jumper.
This play is probably the optimal pick-and-roll result for San Antonio. It gets Tony Parker matched up with Joel Anthony near the top of the key, and Anthony doesn't stand a chance. Parker is a blur coming off the Tim Duncan pick, screaming to the basket for a barely contested layup.
Most of the time, though, San Antonio can't get something that clean and easy against Miami's defense, especially because it doesn't usually play the soft coverage Anthony displayed on that particular play.
Far more often, this is what Parker (or here, Ginobili) sees when he comes around a screen: two Miami defenders right in his face. While that strategy creates a two-on-one for the defense on the ball, San Antonio has a four-on-three advantage off the ball, which it can take advantage of if it just chooses the right man to pass to.
Ginobili chooses the right man.
LeBron abandons Leonard in the corner to handle the threat of Splitter near the rim, so Ginobili fires a jump pass to Leonard in the corner. Of course, LeBron is superhuman, so he actually beats the ball to the spot and is right up on Leonard as he receives the pass.
But Leonard throws a nice ball fake toward the baseline, gets LeBron to open his hips just a bit and is able to attack the middle of the lane with a drive.
Here's another example from the second half. Though it's not as aggressive as the one on Ginobili in the previous video, this is still basically a double-team that Parker sees as he comes around the screen. Both LeBron's and Bosh's eyes are trained on him, so Parker swings the ball to Ginobili.
The ensuing rotations that resulted from the quick double of Parker as he came around the screen were fast and furious.
Miller, guarding Green on the weak side, drops all the way into the lane to tag Duncan on his roll to the rim. While LeBron, Wade or even Battier can make this rotation consistently and sometimes fairly easily, Miller lacks the athleticism and foot speed to go from the perimeter to the lane and back to the perimeter to contest Green's three.
Here, Parker is aggressively trapped by Norris Cole and Battier as he comes around a screen from Matt Bonner. They're able to redirect him slightly backward, but Parker fires a crosscourt pass to Green, keeping the Spurs a step ahead of the defense. Because he was initially on the weak side and wasn't an immediate post-up threat, Duncan has Bosh on his back and is able to easily receive an entry pass from Green.
The Spurs fully clear that side of the court and let him go to work.
The Spurs found a modicum of success with their regular pick-and-roll attack, but it's not always easy come, easy score, so they supplemented it with some double-screen action.
Pay attention to the position of Wade, Bosh and James as Ginobili gets screens from Duncan and Leonard. Wade is on the ball, seemingly unaware of the coming screen. Bosh is giving a bit of a soft hedge, not really ready to jump out on the ball-handler. And LeBron is hanging way back near the free-throw line.
They're each responsible for cutting off a certain pocket of space, but look what happens.
Wade gets clobbered by the second screen, and both Bosh and LeBron chase after Ginobili as he dribbles to his left. This again leaves Miller to make the up-down-up rotation from Neal to Duncan to Neal, but again he's too late. Neal throws a pump fake to shake Miller and gets an open jumper.
The Spurs worked for shots like these all game long, and even though they won, they didn't really play to their full offensive potential. They left plenty of points on the floor in the form of missed open jumpers. Although they likely won't turn the ball over only four times in a game again, they probably also won't miss quite so many shots they usually make.
The Heat won't struggle to score as much as they did in Game 1, but if they don't clean up their defense, it might not matter.
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