San Antonio’s Small Ball Adjustment

While the Miami Heat laid enough eggs in Game 3 to make the world’s largest midrange jumper omelette, the San Antonio Spurs deserve all the credit in the world for leading the 2013 NBA Finals. They’ve been better in both schematics and execution, and one adjustment in particular is striking. For much of the series, and in Game 3 specifically, the Spurs have committed to spreading an aggressive, swarming Miami defense to its breaking point by playing as many shooters as defensively palatable.

The Heat, of course, are most associated with lineup flexibility. Their ability to go small with multiple 3-point shooters is celebrated, but this is still a team that plays a fairly traditional starting five. Yet it’s the Spurs who’ve demonstrated a willingness to shift the rotation as necessary, going back to their second round matchup with Golden State. Against the Warriors, San Antonio ditched their usual combination of Duncan and Splitter in the face of a smaller opponent unleashing a barrage of jump shots; the standard Spurs starters played just 14.2% of the total minutes in the series. When their playoff path turned to Memphis, San Antonio doubled down on their bulkier lineups, with the starters playing over 25% of the available minutes.

All of that has given rise to an NBA Finals that’s blended both of San Antonio’s gears when the Spurs have played their best ball. They’re destroying Miami with their starting unit, which is outscoring the Heat by 20.1 points per 100 possessions, and they’re letting that squad run rampant for nearly as many minutes as in the previous round. With Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh against the Spurs starters, San Antonio has been able to stuff the paint and dare Miami to take lower efficiency midrange jumpers. The Spurs aren’t lighting up the scoreboard with the starters, posting an atrocious 92.7 offensive rating — by comparison, the league-worst Wizards’ offensive rating was 97.8. But their starters are smothering the Heat (and allowing the Heat to smother themselves) to the tune of 72.8 points allowed per 100 possessions.

If San Antonio and Miami went starting unit versus starting unit for 48 minutes, the Spurs would be on their way to the most convincing sweep in Finals history. In Games 1 and 2, though, the Spurs largely gave that edge back when the Heat went small. San Antonio floundered with various combinations of Diaw, Splitter and Duncan on the court against Miami’s shooters. A conservative approach to Miami’s top gameplan simply didn’t cut it; while Diaw is by no means an awful shooter, he’s more proficient operating from the elbows than the perimeter, and his presence on the offensive end enabled the Heat to more readily rotate to cover shooters left open by their aggressive traps.

For the Spurs to capitalize on the lead they continued to garner with Haslem on the floor, they needed to find a way to counter the Heat’s small lineups. The Spurs tried an intermediate step, coupling Matt Bonner with either Duncan or Splitter.* It failed rather thoroughly. Miami too readily took advantage of Bonner’s defense, and the Spurs were unable to score enough to make up for the deficiency on the other end. Given those failings and in trouble of losing Game 1, Gregg Popovich went full bore with small ball, putting Kawhi Leonard and Gary Neal alongside the Ancient Big 3 just over four minutes into the fourth quarter. Down three at that point, San Antonio out Miami’d Miami, playing small better than the Heat did to secure a four point victory and the home court advantage they held in Game 3.

*It’s not really going small, given Bonner’s height — call it Spaceball(s).

Going small brings its own disadvantages and problems, surely, especially on defense. It hasn’t been all gumdrops and giggles for the Spurs when they’ve matched small for small. Two of the five most played San Antonio lineups without two of the Duncan/Diaw/Splitter triumvirate have been torched through the first three games. But this strategy provides the best chance at competing with the Heat when Haslem takes a seat. Many of those defensive shortcomings disappear when your opponent doesn’t have the size to exploit mismatches, as with Miami’s small lineups. And the threat of shooters all over the court for a team willing to make the next pass is a nightmare for a team predicated on leaving players open on the back side to force pressure at the point of attack.

In Game 3, San Antonio took that to heart; after going back to Diaw and Bonner in Game 2, once again to their detriment, the Spurs sat Diaw for the entire game and used Bonner only for spot duty and to mop up things at the end. When Haslem sat for the Heat, replaced by Mike Miller, Splitter sat for the Spurs, replaced by Manu Ginobili. Through a revolving combination of Gary Neal, Danny Green and Leonard, San Antonio coupled a wide open offensive attack that pressed Miami into unusual mistakes and suspect effort with tenacious defense  that thoroughly flummoxed LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and company. Yes, the Heat were awful, to an extent unlike anything we’ve ever seen from this team. Yes, the Spurs shot at a potentially unsustainable rate from deep, volume and efficiency considered. Yes, variance is a wonderful thing, and teams that go small and launch a ton of threes are more susceptible to the fleeting fate of luck.

But at this rate, San Antonio needn’t consistently beat Miami at their own game. They simply need to play that game well. If they can just keep pace, their starters will put them over the hump, and we might not be going back to Miami.

Statistical support provided by Image by digitpedia via Flickr

Andrew Lynch

When God Shammgod created the basketball universe, Andrew Lynch was there. His belief in the superiority of advanced statistics and the eventual triumph of expected value-based analytics stems from the fact that he’s roughly as old as the concept of counting. With that said, he still loves the beauty of basketball played at the highest level — it reminds him of the splendor of the first Olympics — and the stories that spring forth from the games, since he once beat Homer in a game of rock-paper-scissors over a cup of hemlock. Dude’s old.