The San Antonio Spurs have always been ahead of the curve. They were the first team to take serious advantage of the shorter distance on corner three-point shots; they sacrificed offensive rebounding—a portion of the game that doesn't correlate with winning—for transition defense; they relied heavily on their bench, going so far as to not have any player on the team average 30 minutes per game or more during the 2013-2014 the regular season.
When it came to last year's NBA Finals, the Spurs made another daring and forward-thinking move: Completely disrespect LeBron James and Dwyane Wade's shooting from the outside in favor of stopping perimeter penetration.
Take away Ray Allen's series-saving three-point shot in Game 6, and San Antonio had the championship won. Their strategy worked. Even though James shot 41 percent from three-point range last year, they didn't care. They chose a poison and lived with the results.
Expect a similar approach in this year's rematch, as the Miami Heat proved they had no answer for San Antonio's unwillingness to venture out of the paint. Miami tried to counter by hammering the Spurs in the post, but Kawhi Leonard's length and strength mitigated that effectiveness.
Not to mention that San Antonio was completely unwilling to double-team. Even when James bullied his way to the basket, the Spurs let it happen. Because LeBron is one of the game's best distributors, the Spurs knew sending help would only lead to ball swings and open threes. If James had to win this series one-on-one from the block, they liked their chances.
But James is a natural perimeter player who likes to operate from above the three-point line; San Antonio's adjustments forced his relocation to the mid-post/block area, where Miami hoped to generate better looks.
It was only in transition that Miami was able to kill San Antonio, as the Heat have done to many teams before. Cleaning that up will be a priority, but the Spurs' half-court mindset will likely remain unchanged. There's evidence of that from just a week ago, when the Spurs faced off against Oklahoma City for the right to move on to the Finals.
In terms of overall basketball mentality, Westbrook and James are largely the same: Perimeter players who thrive when attacking the rim with power and speed, finishing over defenders at the rim and dishing to shooters after having broken down the defense. Both are capable outside shooters, but no one would highlight that portion of their games as primary strengths.
That's why San Antonio laid off Westbrook in typical half-court actions, giving him space on the perimeter to protect against the drive. They wanted him to fall in love with his patented elbow pull-up, a low-efficiency shot that simultaneously takes away from his distributing and rim-finishing.
In one-on-one situations, this entailed handing Westbrook multiple feet of room to operate on the perimeter. If he had the ball at the three-point line, his defender was typically within range of the free-throw line—just as Danny Green is here in overtime of Game 6.
When Westbrook throws a hesitation dribble-drive at Green, Green wildly scrambles back towards the rim to cut off any lanes to the restricted area. This forces Westbrook to take a step-back jumper, which he misses. Though Green does a poor job pivoting and exploding to contest the shot, the concept is clear: Give Westbrook space, overprotect against the drive, let him shoot.
This concept expanded to pick-and-roll situations as well, with Spurs defenders going underneath screens when Westbrook was farther out on the perimeter. If he wanted to pull up behind a screen for an off-the-dribble three-pointer, he was encouraged to have at it.
Anything below the three-point line and the Spurs went over the screen (it's too low to go under), with the big man dropping all the way back. Again, the purpose is the same: keep dropping to the rim until Westbrook pulls up.
Here we see Leonard giving Westbrook space before a pick-and-roll action, and then going under a Reggie Jackson screen.
Leonard is much bigger and stronger than Jackson, which is to say that there's virtually no need for him to go underneath. He can easily fight through that screen, but it would stray from San Antonio's defensive principles: Let Westbrook shoot from the perimeter. Though this shot is a bit too wide open, it highlights the lengths to which the Spurs stuck to their game plan to turn opponents into jump shooters.
It was this type of defense that heavily contributed to Westbrook's up-and-down performance in the last series. He could never get anything going consistently because he's not a consistent shooter. San Antonio banked on this, and Westbrook walked right into it.
Now how far is San Antonio willing to go with this philosophy? The championship-clinching play from last year's Finals should give you some sort of clue. Let's recap the situation: 39 seconds to go in Game 7, Miami with the ball and up two points. One stop gives the Spurs a chance to tie the game, whereas a Miami bucket all but seals the title.
How did San Antonio defend James on the play? With plenty of space afforded to him by Leonard.
When Mario Chalmers sprints in for the pick-and-roll, Parker quickly hedges before recovering back to Chalmers, who's popping to the wing. Leonard, meanwhile, takes his time recovering back to James.
The 20-foot pull-up that LeBron sinks is the shot San Antonio wanted to give up. LeBron shot 38.5 percent on off-the-dribble jumpers in last year's playoffs, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). The Spurs played the percentages. Unfortunately, it didn't work out in their favor.
Defending a player like James is a nearly impossible task. His game has no clear weakness, and his willingness to share the basketball puts extra pressure on a defense. San Antonio will not be able to stop him; they might not even slow him down that much.
But every player has parts of their game that aren't perfect. For LeBron, that's his jump shot. It's still above average compared to the rest of the league, but it's nowhere near as effective as his ability to drive.
If LeBron lives in the paint throughout this series, expect the Miami offense to be firing on all cylinders. That's why San Antonio is trying to cut it off at all costs, even if that means giving up jumpers to a good shooter. Whether or not the strategy works, we will certainly find out.
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