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What The San Antonio Spurs Picked Up From The 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers

Soobum Im - USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs got stunned in Game 1. In Games 2 and 3, though, they came back strong using a few tactics the 2015 Cavaliers used against the Warriors.

In the 2015 NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers, without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love, shocked everyone by going up 2-1 against the Golden State Warriors. The Cavs of course ended up losing the series, but LeBron James gave such a Herculean effort that there was talk of him winning Finals MVP despite losing.

The Cavs had absolutely zero chance of matching the Warriors’ firepower without Irving or Love. Zero. James’ primary aids on offense ended up being Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith of all people. So how did LeBron James and Co. end up stealing two games from the Warriors? They limited the variables.

The Warriors wanted to run. They wanted chaos. They wanted transition, pull up in your face, back-breaking three-pointers. They wanted to embarrass you from deep and then force you to call a timeout as they saunter back to their bench.

The Cavs, at least for two games, were having none of it. Instead of trying to get more shooters on the floor, they brought out their best defensive lineups and harassed the Warriors. On the other end, they basically just bought time. They squeezed every ounce out of the shot clock by just getting the ball to James past the 12 second mark and letting him go to work.

A lot of noise was made of James’ efficiency, but as Kyle Wagner of Deadspin noted, for his usage rate and his forcing shots late in the shot clock, he was really damn good.

As we know, three-pointers are largely variable. Unlike a shot at the rim, a team can get red-hot, or ice-cold, from deep on any given night. By limiting the Warriors’ possessions and forcing them to play half-court offense, the Cavs played the numbers. They would control as much as they could — their offense and the game’s pace — and leave the rest to chance. If the Warriors missed just enough threes, and James hit just enough shots, then they could win.

That’s exactly what the San Antonio Spurs did not do in Game 1 against the Houston Rockets.

The Rockets have finished the regular season in the top three of three-point attempts per game for the past five years but even Game 1 was an anomaly. They shot a ridiculous 22-for-50 on three-pointers, good for 44.0%. For a team that is fantastic at defending the three-pointer, the Spurs looked more like the Sacramento Kings.

If three-point shooting percentages are variable, then the only way to defend the three-pointer is to make sure it doesn’t happen. Outside of three seasons, the Spurs have been top five in the league at limiting opponent three-point attempts per game every year since 1997, the year Gregg Popovich took over the head coach position full-time. Yes, that’s right, almost two entire decades. Despite this, the Rockets were nailing threes from all over the court.           

In Game 1 the Rockets did exactly what they wanted: they pushed the pace, unloaded from three-point range, and attacked downhill into the paint. James Harden, despite having an average (relative to his norm) game, took advantage of any lazy switches and roasted the Spurs’ bigs in isolation. The Spurs finally (no really, this time it’s for real) looked old.

But Game 2 ended up being the exact opposite (just kidding they’re not old anymore). The game was largely close but ended in a blowout in the fourth. Kawhi Leonard spent more time on Harden. Jonathan Simmons provided quality minutes. Pau Gasol returned to the starting lineup, despite the risk of him getting abused by a Harden isolation or pick and roll. With him in, they dominated the glass, finishing with six more offensive rebounds and 15 more rebounds overall. Their offense was revived as the Spurs-ian passing we’ve come to expect from them returned.

Simply making shots, rebounding, and using up the shot clock on offense meant the Spurs could slow the pace down. In Game 1 the pace was 102.4 possessions while in Game 2 it slowed to a maddening crawl at 87.3. The Rockets’ defense, which poked, stripped, and crowded the Spurs’ offense in Game 1 to obsolescence, was lackluster. Harden in particular, who was battling a cold and a minor hip injury, was notably bad. He let Danny Green of all people penetrate the lane a few times without much trouble.

Speaking of Harden, the Spurs did a much better job on the pick and rolls he was involved in. Instead of switching as often, the Spurs’ big would stunt or hedge quickly in front of Harden and then return to the Rockets’ big, giving the primary defender time to recover back onto Harden.

This did leave a lane for Harden to drive or pass into, but the Spurs’ bigs, especially Gasol, were absolutely fantastic in hanging back and defending at the rim against rolling bigs or drives.

In Game 3 the Spurs continued their assault as their defense finally put the clamps on the Rockets’ high-octane offense. The pace went up to 95.2 but that was close to the Spurs’ regular season average.

Leonard, with 26/10/7, was excellent as always and LaMarcus Aldridge had his first good game of the playoffs, putting up 26 points and 7 rebounds. Harden was back to being brilliant with 43 points (he’s got my vote for MVP) but the rest of the Rockets will have to pull their weight. This was their shot to cement a lead at home, especially with Tony Parker out for the season and rookie Dejounte Murray starting in his place, but they just couldn’t get their pace, or space, back.

Many were hoping the Rockets vs Spurs Western Conference Semifinals matchup would be an instant classic. Stylistic clashing produced great sports battles before: Sampras vs Agassi, Federer vs Nadal, James vs Curry. Instead this mish-mash of a team that has fearlessly embraced offensive modernity versus a team that has remained as dogmatic as ever in their defensive traditions has resulted in two blowouts out of three games. The third game, at least, gives us hope for an entertaining series. And that’s really all that fans want.

Edited by Julian Boireau, David Kaptzan.

Who has played in the most playoff games?
Created 5/7/17
  1. Tony Parker
  2. Dirk Nowitzki
  3. Kobe Bryant
  4. Michael Jordan

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