The Spurs Game 3 Adjustment

One of the biggest questions I had coming into this Spurs/Rockets series was could the Spurs defend Houston’s pick and roll with that spacing, those three point shooters, those playmakers? Why? Because a) this isn’t *exactly* the Spurs defense we know and love. Don’t get me wrong, still an extremely good outfit but instead of having Tim Duncan back there controlling air traffic, it was a mix of Gasol/Lee/Aldridge with a sprinkle of Dedmon. No offense to any of their bigs, just a little different defensively than the kind of presence Duncan brought. And b) the Rockets are really, really good offensively. Their ability to space the floor and put pressure on you defensively with penetration/shooting ability has been a joy to watch. After Game 1 the answer appeared to be a resounding “Nah bruh” with Houston scoring 126 points on 30 assists, making 22 threes and winning by almost 30. It was stunning.

In the two games since the Rockets have scored 96 and 92 respectively, making a combined 23 threes (23-for-73, 31.5%). Make no mistake about it, the spacing, Harden have all been great but what’s made the Rockets so good: their willingness and ability to hit the three ball. They made an NBA-record 1181 (14.4 per game). In a sense they’ve flipped the math. And before the narrative switches to “OH THEY SHOOT TOO MANY JUMPSHOTS” let’s appreciate what the Spurs have done without downgrading the Rockets. The Rockets all year have shot threes and have been able to generate quality, uncontested threes. The Spurs have (for now) figured out how to make those 3’s a little tougher.

Now some would talk about how the second round isn’t as tough, I saw a stat from ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh stating that all second round games have been decided by double digits. The general reaction is “What a terrible playoffs, can we fast forward to Warriors/Cavs”. To enjoy the NBA Playoffs, you have to enjoy the journey that goes with it. That sounds incredibly corny but hear me out. Every team gets challenged in a different way in each round, some more than others. We talk about the importance of adjustments in the playoffs and they definitely play a role. I think what we are seeing is that most of these teams in this round specifically can expose the opposition’s “fatal flaw”. See in the first round, teams can get to it but not consistently. Once the talent level raises up, opposition figures it out, there’s additional challenges. Take the Raptors for example: Milwaukee used activity/aggressiveness on defense to fluster them early in the series but Toronto figured it out AND figured out that if they actually play defense Milwaukee will have issues scoring. Cleveland’s using some of the same concepts defensively (different scheme) BUT they have the scoring on the other end to blow Toronto out of the water.

Anyways back to the Spurs and what they did to the Rockets last night. Essentially with Gasol they adjusted their pick and roll defense on Harden. Gasol would immediately sprint back to the restricted area, Kawhi would have to fight over the screen and everyone else stayed home. What’s that do? For one it gives Gasol one job: contest at the rim without fouling. There is no indecision, just get to the rim and make him make a tough two. Two it concedes the midrange jumpshot, a shot the Rockets don’t like to take at all (there was an old school player watching last night’s game BEGGING Houston to start pulling up and muttering about numbers I guarantee it). Three it keeps Kawhi in action as the Rockets aren’t going to space Harden just to get Kawhi on an island. And lastly, it takes away the rest of the Spurs defense from having to help on penetration and give up open threes or be forced to closeout/rotate and give the other Rockets the space to drive, force more rotations and open up more threes.

The Rockets have always done a good job of reading pick and roll defense. If you switch, Harden has a mismatch to go with that spacing. Those bigs aren’t able to keep him in front which opens up his drive or ability to penetrate and kick. If your bigs stay up in the pick and roll, he’s finding the open man with ease like in this clip:

By having a big be up in pick and roll, you’re discouraging the drive but also putting a lot of pressure on your help defense to a) help on the roller and b) be able to recover to open shooters. Houston’s spacing picks apart this kind of defense with Harden’s ability to find the open man. The Spurs tried something a little different.

Here you can see what I was talking about a little earlier. Gasol immediately retreats towards the restricted area to meet Harden at the rim. Kawhi’s size allows him to fight over most screens, the key is that no other Spurs are helping or involved in the action. They are sitting and waiting for the kickouts. That ability to drive and kick is what really unlocks the spacing for the Rockets, all of a sudden the rest of the players can drive those closeouts, put more pressure on the defense and open up more shots. Without that help it leads to a contested shot. You can also see how this adjustment helped the Spurs defend late in the clock:

Again without the Spurs helping on the roll man, it limits the effect the spacing can have as far as kicking to open man, driving closeouts and shooting uncontested 3’s.

The adjustment for the Rockets seems obvious: have other people screen. For instance shortly after Harden had Ariza set a pick and roll for him since Lee was guarding him and they had a different result.

Here, Lee is forced to show out since he’s not the same threat rim protection wise. That opens Ariza to pop, creates a disadvantage and since the Spurs weren’t helping gave Ariza an easy drive to the lane. The problem for Houston is if Capela is neutralized in pick and roll (his best offense is as a roller) it hurts their attack. Spacing is great but if you don’t have threats rolling it doesn’t have the same effect. They could also just set the screen higher to give Harden more room to attack Spurs bigs downhill. Or have guard/guard action to try and force a switch and get Kawhi off of Harden to try and open things up that way. Maybe Anderson plays the 5 to pop and neutralize how this works. Also if Harden can get more foul calls at the rim it could alter the strategy. But it appears the Spurs are willing to give up midrange/force contested 2’s at the expense of giving up wide open threes. And for 48 minutes, it appeared to work. That, however is the beauty of the playoffs, an adjustment can either work for one game or an entire series. It’s on the Rockets to figure out how to get their offense going again.