Pop’s Chessboard: Kings vs Spurs


In this second edition of Pop’s Chessboard, we’ll take a deep look at the tactical moves and counter-moves employed by Greg Popovich. Why? Because he certainly won’t tell us anything about them. As expected, most of Pop’s strategies seemed to be focused on Sacramento’s young star big man, Demarcus Cousins.


Right from the start of the game, the Spurs made their intentions clear. Despite their reputation as a slow, aging team, they gained the early advantage by outrunning the Kings, getting most of their offensive work done before Cousins could even make it down the floor. These head starts were key in getting open looks and creating momentum in San Antonio’s favor.

Karl responded to this by keeping Cousins closer to the perimeter when the King’s possessions were in the early stages, but this made it easier to keep him away from the post and limited his impact in the first half.

Mar 4, 2015; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9) dribbles between Sacramento Kings forwards Rudy Gay (8) and Jason Thompson (34) at the AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports


When “Boogie” Cousins is down the court in time, he’s very adept at disturbing half court offenses with his size and athleticism. It’s key to stop him from getting his feet set, and the Spurs were able to accomplish this from the start of the game. Popovich made use of high screens to create extra movement and make for less predictable possessions, and as a result Cousins was forced to move his feet and make guesses more often than he wanted to. Along with the high screens, the Spurs wing players took advantage of Sacramento’s underwhelming perimeter defense and were able to force Cousins into help situations as well. Taking Boogie out of the half court defense equation played a key role in the Spurs consistent scoring.


Small forward Rudy Gay is always prime to drop twenty points for the Kings, who like to give him a heavy dosage of shot attempts as a part of their offensive strategy. His ability to get his shot off with just inches of space is well known around the league, and the Spurs were aware of this. Instead of fighting over screens, Spurs defenders reacted to the Kings’ picks before they were set in place, making quick switches before any ground was lost on Rudy Gay. This, combined with Kawhi Leonard’s Pippen-like performance on the defensive end, made it a long day for Rudy Gay.

Nov 28, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Sacramento Kings small forward Rudy Gay (R) dribbles the ball as San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (L) defends during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports


When Cousins was out, Popovich moved his big men (and their screens) back inside. While his shot attempts were very limited in this one, Duncan made a big impact using his basketball IQ and a little bit of creativity. While lots of big men can set solid screens, Duncan took things up to another level. His screens opened up lanes for cuts that weren’t otherwise possible, and his box outs during Tony Parker’s drives were a huge factor in helping TP get his confidence up. His craftiness and dedication to detail affected several possessions and he created many more points for his team than the box score would suggest. This piece of strategy is a perfect example of how Popovich and Duncan have been able to feed off of each other for so many years.


Once his squad had earned a big lead over the Kings, Popovich put in a lineup of Patrick Mills, Marco Bellinelli, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, and Aaron Baynes. The lineup was a safe one to go to, given that it’s full of high IQ players who can hit shots consistently. Tonight, all of their hands were hot, and their success from beyond the arc quickly put the Kings away for good.

Next: Spurs: What Went Right and Wrong on Rodeo Trip?