The whole game between the San Antonio Spurs Cleveland Cavaliers was tight, and as they went down the stretch, it became more and more clear that late game execution was going to decide the game either way. In this edition of X’s and O’s, I wanted to take a look at what was done late for the Spurs to pull out the W, and more specifically I wanted to go into what happened on the play that the Spurs pulled ahead on.
To help set the scene a little bit, the Cavaliers had just scored of of a Dion Waiters stepback jumper to go ahead by one point. The Spurs then called a timeout and call up a play with the remaining 9.5 seconds left. The Spurs originally called something that looked like a post up to Duncan where he would have had an option to give the ball back to the inbounder, Kawhi Leonard who was cutting baseline to the hoop, or to back down his opponent on his own. However, the Cavs still had a foul to give before they were in the bonus, so they used it as soon as Duncan caught the ball. The Spurs called up the next play on the fly, and this is what happened.
To start off the play, Tim Duncan goes to the middle of the foul line to set a screen that both Gary Neal and Kawhi run across to get to the two corners and spot up. Tony Parker then uses Duncan as a pick and runs out to the center of the floor to receive the inbounds pass and start up the play. Matt Bonner inbounds the ball and steps in on the right wing to spot up there.
As the play begins, you can see that it is a very basic high screen and roll to try and get a quick two to tie the game. The high screen and roll is a main staple of the Spurs offense. Their primary ball handlers, Parker and Ginobili are lethal in it, and the bigs are all capable of rolling hard to the paint, or popping out for a jumper. Duncan comes up immediately to set an outstanding screen that stands up Shaun Livingston and creates a one on one matchup with tons of space for Tony Parker, one of the best, and one of the most creative finishers at the rim to operate in against rookie center Tyler Zeller. (Also, note that there is no help at the rim after Zeller.) Now, Zeller has had a nice game defensively, but most of that has been low post up defense against the Spurs big men. Dealing with an elite offensive player playing to one of his strengths is an entirely new game for Zeller, who isn’t a perimeter defender at all.
Parker, being the elite guard he is, blows by Zeller and gets to the rim with ease. At this point, Parker has a choice to make. He can either take a layup for the tie, which is a virtual guarantee, because even if he misses Tim Duncan is crashing the boards right behind him for a quick put back. The other option for Parker is to kick out to Leonard, who is sitting wide open on the right corner.
There are multiple things factoring into why Leonard is so wide open. I know direction of a high pick and roll may not seem like a big deal on most plays, but for this one especially it is. Parker goes left on this play, which overloads that side of the floor since it already has Neal in the corner and Bonner on the wing waiting to shoot. That leaves only Leonard on the right side of the floor since Duncan is going right to the hoop. And, if you look back at how there is no help for Zeller, that means to prevent a layup, the weakside defender has to come over and help.
On this play, the weakside defender is the defensively challenged Dion Waiters. He really doesn’t do much of anything but ball watch on this play. He half-commits to coming over to help, then realizes he is to late for that and just watches, completely forgetting about his man in the corner. In this particular case, coming over to help is the wrong thing to do. The Cavs are already up two points; if the Spurs get a layup, the worst case scenario is that the game goes into overtime. If the Spurs hit a three, then the game is over, so that has to be the first thing the Cavs deny.
Alas, Waiters makes the wrong decision and comes so far over to ball watch that he is standing in the paint. Parker notices this, and kicks it out to the wide open Kawhi Leonard, who is shooting 48% on corner threes this year. Kawhi rises up, and then knocks it down, putting the Spurs up by one. Now, lets watch this in real time.
After this play, the Cavs have about 2.9 seconds left to get another shot to win it. They call an isolation for Kyrie Irving, who had been struggling all game long. This play is no different. He slips, getting him out of his rhythm, then ends up taking a difficult runner after Tony Parker plays some great on ball defense on him, leading to a Spurs victory.
“We practiced that 1,000 times so I knew we’d be able to execute it…If Tony had the open layup, he would’ve have gotten the layup. That was his alternative.”
–Gregg Popovich on the late game play call
That quote goes to show just how much perfect execution matters late in the game. Even after the Spurs’ first choice was taken away, they had a surefire backup plan that would also have a high chance of success based on how comfortable the Spurs are with running the pick and roll. In the NBA, you have to be mentally prepared for any situation to arise. The Spurs showed their mental fortitude, and the Cavaliers didn’t. That’s why they were able to pull off the victory.