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Xs & Os + Game planning: How deep does the rabbit hole go?

This examination of the 2014 NBA play-offs first round chess match between two of the games greatest coaches Greg Popovich and Rick Carlisle is still useful today for coaches wishing to gain an insight into how deep the rabbit hole goes in terms of Xs & Os, game planning, match-ups, and adjustments:


The Dallas Mavericks’ tactics, strategies and roster manoeuvres to cool the offence of the San Antonio Spurs and pursue NBA supremacy (Plus other ramifications around the Association)


Although the magnitude of their achievement would not become fully apparent until the Spurs eviscerated the Miami Heat in perhaps the greatest exhibition of offensive team basketball ever witnessed in the Finals a month later, the Mavs concluded the 2013 – 14 NBA season by extending the eventual champion and number-one seeded Spurs to seven games in their first round play-off series. No other team would come so close to eliminating the Spurs.


Rick Carlisle’s Red Herrings

The regular season had been no indication that the Mavs would prove so difficult to eliminate. The Spurs swept the season series, 4-0, with an average margin of victory of 11.5 (116 – 107 at home on Boxing Day; 112 – 90 on the road, January 8th; 112 – 106 on the road, March 2nd; 109 – 100 at home on April 10 [the Mavs’ 80th game of the regular season]). The Spurs dominance of the Mavs extended back to include a season sweep the previous year (’12 – ’13).


Perhaps of greater concern would have been the Mavs inability to restrict the Spurs’ scoring (112.3 ppg, with O Ratings of 113.9, 122.8, 118.7, and 118.1; on the season the Spurs posted an O Rating of 110.5, good for 7th in the NBA).


The conclusive offensive success of the Spurs had a liberating effect on Mavs’ Head Coach Rick Carlisle. Holding no pretensions that his defensively challenged team (22nd in D Rating) could sufficiently limit the Spurs’ scoring, adopting unorthodox, high variance defensive strategies would clearly be necessary if the Mavs were to have any chance of restricting and defeating the Spurs.


As is now finally widely appreciated, the Spurs are at their best when their combination of ball and player movement is in full flight. Players who break the control of the defence such as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are frequently involved in pre-catch motion which flows into an arrival on-ball screen or a dribble hand-off. Therefore their defender is often still out of position from navigating a prior action and unable to defend the on-ball or hand-off in optimal fashion. Players who exploit an already compromised defence such as Kawhi Leonard (attacking close-outs) constantly are provided opportunities to attack a close-out with a (lateral step) advantage and with the second and third levels of the defence scrambled.


On-ball screens are a primary means to force two defenders to guard one offensive player and provoke the defence into rotations. This effect is magnified if the defence chooses an aggressive coverage in which the screener’s defender (normally a big) leaves the paint – coverages such as hard hedging or trapping.


In their series versus the Spurs the Mavs selected coverages (drops, drops into late switches, switches) that allowed them to deal with (two-man game) on-ball screens as much as possible with two defenders. This minimises rotations by the three defenders not directly involved in the on-ball screen. Therefore the three offensive players not directly involved are more closely covered. Passing options, catch-and-shoot spot-up 3-pointers, and offensive diversity is reduced. Thereby the Mavs were able to reduce the Spurs ball and player movement. Consequently in Game 1 72 % of the Spurs points (65 of 90) would be scored by ‘compromisers of the defence’ – Parker (21 points, 9/16 FG), Ginobili (17, 4/10) and Tim Duncan (27, 12/20) – whereas recipients and spacers such as Danny Green (0, 0/2), Patty Mills (2, 1/4) and Marco Belinelli (0, 0/4) were virtually eliminated from the offence. This concept of staying attached and minimising rotations lay at the heart of the Mavs’ entire defensive game plan for the series.


Match-ups, or more specifically cross-matches, were pivotal in determining the success of Carlisle’s strategy. Small forward Shawn Marion, a declining but still versatile and capable defender, was frequently matched up with Spurs offensive catalyst and point guard Parker. Marion opened on Parker in Games 1 through 4. Marion’s ability to stay attached on Parker’s bumps at the conclusion of dribble drives marginally reduced the effectiveness of Parker’s penetration. When Marion chose to slide under on-ball screens the ability to not separate comes in handy as Parker often responds by accelerating, meeting his defender deep in the lane where he subtle dislodges them and shoots as they separate backwards following the contact. In addition, Marion, who spent the peak years of his career often as an under sized 4 on Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix teams, was able to switch onto bigs and hold up on the interior when he was involved in the Spurs’ numerous on-balls for Parker. These switches often involved Parker being presented with perimeter isolations versus Mavs bigs Samuel Dalembert and Dirk Nowitzki. In offering up these mismatches the Mavs seemingly lured the Spurs into isolations – burning the switch by attacking the perimeter mismatch off the bounce being an appropriate response to the Mavs’ on-ball screen coverage – and away from their ball and player movement. Often the Spurs would convert these mismatches for scores (Parker being especially effective crossing right to left into a pull-up as the big riffled backwards to prevent the cross over leading to Parker beating them to the rim), however their possessions would be atypically stagnant. 


Furthermore, Marion’s length, athleticism and timing allowed him to effectively yo-yo post entries from Parker (not a shooting threat in these situations, especially as they typically occur early in the shot clock when Parker is more reluctant to shot as he seeks a better opportunity) into Duncan. These entries lead to two significant threats within the Spurs’ offence. Firstly, Duncan in the post, and secondly, Parker cutting off the baseline shoulder of the post for a return hand-off. Deterring, and on one occasion, stealing, these post entries chips away at the effectiveness and interior options of the Spurs’ attack.


This cross match shifted the Mavs’ hyper efficient offensive starting point guard Jose Calderon off Parker onto Spurs predominantly catch-and-shoot proponent Danny Green – designated by Carlisle as a ‘hider.’ Removing Calderon from situations that required him to defend on the ball (including screens) was imperative, as he lacks the lateral quickness to contain, nor the strength to re-route dribblers and fight through screens. Spurs Head Coach Greg Popovich would counter and cause Carlisle quandries by substituting Green with a secondary ball handler such as Ginobili or Patty Mills to play along side Parker. The Spurs would then re-distribute their on-balls more towards the secondary ball handler, whom Calderon would be forced to match-up with, who could gain traction and productivity in the match-up.


Carlisle would often pair Jae Crowder’s minutes with Ginobili’s minutes as the primary ball handler on the Spurs’ second unit (usually alongside Mills as a spot-up shooter who the Mavs’ point guards could ‘hide’ on. However, Calderon would even struggle with Mills in on-ball screen situations. In these instances the Mavs would choose conservative coverages [located drops], however, Calderon would get crushed on the screen and Mills would be free to pull up in space following use of the screen). To a lesser extent, Crowder was able to employ similar tactics to Marion, switching the screen or chasing over the top and late switching onto the big should he become separated with little chance of recovering to a Ginobili who’d turned the corner.


Monta Ellis cross matched up onto Spurs’ small forward Kawhi Leonard, offering surprisingly stout post defence on the rare occasions the Spurs would attempt to exploit the perceived mismatch on the interior, especially up until the first quarter of game 4 where Leonard would gain one deep catch and an offensive rebound (more on this later). Ellis’ ability to hold up on Leonard in the post allowed the cross match of Marion on Parker without having to play Ellis at the point and massively reducing the Mavs’ point guards’ (Calderon, Devin Harris) minutes – undesirable as it would negatively effect the Mavs’ offence.


The Mavs’ starting bigs would match-up much more conventionally with Nowitzki typically on Duncan and Dalembert typically on Tiago Splitter.


The Mavs persisted with these strategies even when they were barely sound or sustainable, perceiving the results (two-point field goals as the result of isolations being more prevalent than normal; passing and spot-up 3s being reduced from the norm) at worst to be the lesser of two evils – the Mavs’ preferred poison, if you like.


Globally the Mavs’ found success, taking a 2 – 1 series lead, winning Game 2 113 – 92 with a D Rating of 105.9, and Game 3 109 – 108 with a D Rating of 117.3 (effectively constituting an offence driven win). Even in their Game 1 loss the Mavs held the Spurs to 90 points (scoring 85) and posted a D Rating of 101.1. 


The limited shelf life of underdog shock strategies and the difficulty of implementing further unconventional curveballs within the constraints of roster limitations


Following building a 23- 18 first quarter lead in Game 4 in Dallas, the Mavs would curiously diverge from their plan in the second quarter, and in doing so allow the Spurs to regain the ascendancy and going forward to dictate terms in the series.      


Parker was prepared for Marion going under on-ball screens, making a pull-up 2 the first on-ball he was involved in.


Brandan Wright offers the Mavs’ exceptional vertical spacing with his ability to catch passes located in a vast area above the rim and finish at a high percentage (per nba.com/stats Wright attempted 4.1 close shots (within 12 feet) in 18.7 minutes per game despite only averaging 0.3 drives per game – indicating these shots are the result of passes and offensive boards; he converted 77.5 %). However, Wright is a liability defending on-ball screens. He struggles to position himself with the appropriate depth on drops, either retreating so far as to allow the ball handler to finish at the rim (the preference of a basket attacker like Ginobili) or surrendering an uncontested pull-up (Mills has a preference for these), or reacting up to the ball handler and allowing the screener to dive behind him for a pocket pass and an uncontested finish (given the Mavs’ strategy abhorred a third defender rotating to chuck the diver for fear of conceding an uncontested three or triggering a tiki-taka sequence of close-quarters interior low-to-high or high-to-low passing between the Spurs’ exceptional passing bigs the likes of Diaw, Splitter and Duncan). An on-ball involving Calderon and Wright together is almost guaranteed to result in an unmolested ball handler as he comes off the shoulder of the screen. Foreshadowing the transformative second quarter the Spurs involved Wright in a drag screen in the first quarter of Game 4 and Ginobili scored a lay-up.


The Spurs were also able to gain a small measure of ascendancy on the interior versus smaller Mavs defenders crossed matched onto bigger players (Ellis on Leonard) or against stretch 4s covering genuine bigs (Vince Carter on Diaw and Splitter). The Mavs utilised Carter as a stretch 4 to both enhance their offensive spacing and creativity as well as allowing Marion (on Parker) and Carter to switch on-ball screens and still defend the perimeter with typical perimeter defenders. The Spurs found success establishing Splitter inside versus Carter. And, although it took almost 2 minutes to exploit the match-up, the Spurs eventually zippered Diaw into the post and threw it into him. Carter defended well, but the taller Diaw scored up over top. This prompted a Carlisle time-out after which the Mavs re-entered the game with a more conventional line-up.  Although Leonard’s post-up versus Ellis didn’t yield points he did get a deep catch and an offensive rebound, perhaps causing nervousness on the part of Carlisle as to the direction which the match-up was progressing (trending towards Leonard gaining the advantage – in Game 5 Leonard would convert the interior mismatch with Ellis into productivity early in the game, which Carlisle stated was a concern). Interestingly when Marion was aligned with his normal cover – fellow 3 Leonard – he struggled with his athleticism.  


Perhaps unnerved by the aforementioned hints of a changing tide or perhaps restricted by the necessity to rest Marion (perhaps he was injured… he was not in foul trouble) and Ellis (capable of matching up with the bigger Leonard) Carlisle opened the second quarter without a versatile defender on the floor deemed capable of both defending guards on the perimeter and switching onto bigs when defending on-ball screens: Mills was guarded by Devin Harris, Ginobili by Crowder, Leonard by Carter, Diaw by Nowitzki, Splitter by Wright. With Harris (throughout the series he was fairly deemed a more capable on-ball screen defender and drops was employed when he was involved in the action) and Crowder (possibly mistakenly relative to his inability to chase over the top and stay) unable to switch onto bigs the Mavs were forced into employing a different coverage. They chose to employ conservative drops variants and the Spurs mercilessly seized the opportunity to constantly involve Wright in on-ball screen situations. The Spurs had Ginobili run (‘Shakes’) on-balls with Wright’s man (Splitter) as screener 3 possessions for 7 points (including a blown drops or late switch that lead to an uncontested dunk on a pocket pass to Splitter) before Wright was pulled for DeJuan Blair. Wright’s difficulty defending on-ball screens would continue into Game 5 twice getting caught too deep and then on a third occasion, realising he once again was in “no man’s land,” bit on a Ginobili shot fake allowing Manu to hit Duncan wide open on the dive. Wright would DNP-CD in Game 6.


Returning to Game 4, Duncan, who’d entered the game, immediately exploited Blair on the next possession, ducking in for a score and two possessions later establishing a lead post and receiving a high-low pass and drawing a foul on Blair. Ellis conceded an easy baseline cut to Leonard on a post entry and cut baseline and the Mavs found themselves down 10. Two converted live ball turnovers would see the Spurs’ lead extend to 50 – 36 at the half. The Mavs reverted to their normal defensive game plan at the outset of the third quarter.


The Mavs difficulties defending on-ball screens would increase a lot when non-ideal match-ups were involved, perhaps following a scramble in D Trans or following an offensive rebound being kicked out. The Mavs would mount a significant come back in Game 4 (featuring a unit of Harris, Crowder, Carter, Nowitki and Blair featuring no liabilities defending on the perimeter relative to their match-ups and with Blair’s lightning active hands mitigating any disadvantage he may have in the post versus taller players who can shoot up over the top) but this issue would play a large part in it petering out when, with 1:32 to go in the 4th, following an offensive rebound kick out that scrambled the Mavs’ match-ups Parker and Splitter ran an on-ball versus Harris and Marion (up until this point in the series the Mavs were unaccustomed to Marion being involved as the screener’s defender). Harris late switched, whereas Marion recovered to Splitter diving to the rim, resulting in Parker having a wide open 3 that he made to go up 3. Blair, who’d been a catalyst in the come back, being ejected for kicking Splitter in the head was also a factor in the Mavs’ not completing the comeback for a victory. 


During his commentary of Game 5, Chris Webber mentioned Popovich had described the Spurs as being a 5-on-5 team, not a 2-on-2 team, and that even if they had mismatches they had to move the ball. The Spurs were learning to ignore Carlisle’s lures and preserve their style of play – posting their highest O Rating of the series up until that point at 118.6. Five Spurs would score in double figures although the spot up shooters opportunities were still limited (Green 2-2 3PtFG, Belinelli 1-1, Mills 0-3).


Returning home in an attempt to stave off elimination in Game 6 Carlisle significantly re-jigged his match-ups while maintaining the same objective of minimising the Spurs opportunities from 3 and curtailing their ball and player movement. Perhaps Carlisle was dangling new red herrings in front of the Spurs in the hope they would pursue them at the expense of playing 5-on-5 basketball.


The Mavs opened with Calderon on Parker, a match-up they’d understandably avoided up until this point; Ellis shifted away from Leonard and covered his natural match-up Green; Dalembert matched-up with Duncan.


The major adjustment was to move Marion off Parker, but not to his natural match-up Leonard, but onto Splitter, the Spurs primary screener. This allowed Marion to still be involved in a maximum number of on-ball screens, however now he would be able to switch onto Parker and attempt to limit Parker’s ability to exploit the perimeter mismatch against a big post-switch. Previously the Spurs had exhibited a willingness to exploit Splitter’s size advantage in the post over Carter. Perhaps Carlisle hoped they’d attempt the same versus Marion, that he’d be able to hold up and that Splitter post ups would prove a below average efficiency scoring avenue and take the Spurs away from exploring other perceivably more dangerous options. The Spurs did successfully attack Marion in indirect fashion, stationing Splitter on the weak side interior, opposite the primary offensive (set-up) action, and then ducking Splitter in on Marion. They were even more direct when Marion defended Diaw, running triple post actions to go straight into Diaw. Carter entered the game for Nowitzki (rested early as usual, so he can re-enter to anchor the second unit’s offence) with just under 5 minutes left in the opening quarter. Carter then matched-up with Diaw (in for Splitter) and Marion moved onto Ginobili – thus preserving the Mavs ability to switch a lot. Crowder would later relieve Marion.


With Marion on one of the Spurs bigs the Mavs were left with Nowitzki matched-up with Leonard. This had the advantage of minimising the number of on-ball screens Dirk would be involved in defending (a plus for Dallas), however his instincts as a big did see him get caught over helping, pinned in by Spurs 5s and Kawhi getting open catch-and-shoot 3 point looks (1-2 3PtFG in Game 6).


With all the cross matching the game was played at incredible pace (a series high of 96.1, compared to an average of 91.2) and many easy shots eventuated in early offence.


The clock strikes midnight


Having proven successful in Game 6, a 113 – 111 Mavs win, Carlisle utilised a similar game plan and match-ups in Game 7. However, Dallas would encounter a Spurs team whose uninhibited carefree aggression would in no way resemble anything else it had seen in the series. It is a credit to Popovich and the Spurs’ collective resilience and competitive greatness that staring elimination at the hands of an 8-seed in the face they’d play so loose and pro-actively.


Lead by Parker (24 1st half points on 9/12 FG), and to a lesser extent Ginobili, the Spurs would be hyper aggressive attacking the paint. Whereas in Game 6 Parker didn’t really go at Calderon (or if he did it would be by way on an on-ball in which case Marion would switch onto Parker), in Game 7 pushed hard in transition and isolated on the left wing versus Calderon in early offence.


In addition the Spurs established mid-post post-ups frequently. With Dallas going small they three-quarter denied the post and this allowed the Spurs to employ their tactic of sealing off the post defender (and concurrently the help side) allowing Parker and Ginobili to get to the rim.


Mills and Green were also hyper aggressive shooting from the perimeter.


Returning to the series, Wright was immediately under duress as the Spurs involved him in a dribble hand-off with Ginobili who was able to drop it off to Duncan for an easy lay-up. The subsequent trip Duncan abused Wright on a post sprint, sealing him high side for a lob through the corner for another lay-up.


These factors combined to see the Spurs rush out to a 64 – 35 lead. Leonard would find success early in the third shooting up over the top of Ellis in the mid-post as the Spurs sustained their dominance.


A Mavs small ball unit featuring Nowitzki and his shooting at the 5 spread the floor and pulled Duncan out of drops when marking on-balls. The Mavs cut the lead from 22 to 14 midway through the third but the effect quickly wore off and the Spurs re-established a 26-point lead and eventually earned the right to progress to the second round.   


The Mavs’ takeaways from the defeat, subsequent off-season moves, and the deployment of their new pieces


Although Carlisle expertly employed underdog strategies to compensate for his undermanned roster the Mavs off-season moves sought to allow Dallas to pursue a more orthodox form of excellence.


It is extremely difficult to craft a competent defence with Calderon playing significant minutes (the Mavs conceded 6.9 points per 100 possessions more with Calderon on the floor per 82games.com). His inability to defend dribble penetration or fight over on-ball screens without conceding considerable separation to the ball handler being the chief issues. Sometimes he can be hidden on a stand still shooter such as Green, but if the opponent deploys two ball handling guards match-ups become a problem. However Calderon is a highly efficient offensive player well suited to thriving in the Triangle Offence. Therefore the Mavs were able to use him as the main trade chip (along with Dalembert, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin and two second rounders) to acquire Tyson Chandler (and Raymond Felton) from the New York Knicks.


Chandler offers vertical spacing approximating Wright while also anchoring the defence – his on-ball screen defence being far superior, especially when he’s healthy. His ability to offer resistance and hold his ground versus post-ups, including Duncan’s, was evident on 2014 – 15 opening night. 6’10”, 260lbs Greg Smith was also signed as another post defence option (Blair signed with the Wizards).


To replace Calderon as the starting point guard Dallas signed Jameer Nelson, formerly of Orlando. Nelson is far more capable of staying in front on drives, staying attached on contact, re-route ball handlers in on-ball screen situations, and not get stopped cold by the screen. Carlisle will now be able to match-up conventionally if he so chooses. Harris, and a hopefully in-shape Felton, are also an upgrade defensively.     


Chandler Parsons was signed away from the Rockets and should provide the Mavs with a versatile offensive piece (catch-and-shoot out to 3 as a small forward and as a stretch 4, and as a ball handler in on-balls and dribble hand-offs). Defensively he is capable of defending his natural position, the 3, and catch-and-shoot 2s, such as Belinelli, who he covered to start the opener. However, his ability to effectively defend the post and box out, especially matched up against bigs as a stretch 4 is in question. He also struggles with big functions in on-ball screen situations (such as drops when his man sets the screen, or chucking and switching onto divers when he isn’t directly involved). The Spurs stagger back screened Ginobili into a post up versus Parsons out of a time out, which Manu duly converted. Of concern, Diaw was able to stay in front of Parsons’ dribble drive so the reward may not be greater than the risk matched up with versatile genuine bigs. Against Portland the Mavs who double Aldridge to aid Parsons in defending him and would later switch to their zone with Parsons at the 4.


In order to sign Parsons the Mavs were unable to retain Carter and Marion. Both could prove to be valuable contributors to their new teams – Carter to Memphis and Marion to Cleveland. Marion’s defensive versatility may prove to be a significant asset in future play-off series for the Cavaliers. For example, Blatt may be able to deploy him on Derrick Rose and switch him off if Rose is destroying Kyrie Irving, especially in pick and rolls. The Bulls physical bigs who are proficient in the post – Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and to a lesser extent Joakim Noah – may prove difficult for Marion to switch on to, but the strategy may be highly effective if a Rose-Nikola Mirotic pick-and-pop is the problem.


To replace the versatile wing defence of Marion and Carter (as well as his shot making) the Mavs signed Al-Farouq Aminu and Richard Jefferson. Aminu has the capacity to defend perimeter players (inheriting Crowder’s role on Ginobili, who defended Green when they combined to fill the wings together) and some bigs (including a second quarter stint on Aldridge, while Parsons remained on Nic Batum).


Looking ahead to any potential play-off match-ups the Mavs now has a roster with less defensive liabilities, almost as much versatility, and with a more complete two-way center in Chandler. Combined with Carlisle’s brilliant game planning the Mavs will be an extremely tough out in 2014 – 15.

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