Tuesday, June 18, 2024

What the Spurs can learn from the NBA Finals so far

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After two games in Boston, the Celtics are up 2-0 on the Mavericks in the NBA Finals. The home team has looked in control so far thanks to a simple game plan that Dallas hasn’t been able to counter.

On defense, the Celtics are fine with letting Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving score as long as they don’t get the role players involved. On offense, they are getting the Mavs in rotation with drives that draw help and kicking the ball out when the Mavs collapse in the paint.

It’s an oversimplification of what’s been going on, but what’s interesting about how the Celtics have gotten the upper hand from a Spurs-centric perspective is a lesson on the importance of offensive versatility they should keep in mind as they build around Victor Wembanyama.

Spot-up shooting is not enough to make an impact on offense

Boston has decided to focus on limiting two things, 1-5 pick and rolls and corner threes. Let’s focus on the latter first.

The Celtics have largely played Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving straight up on high pick and rolls and isolations. They occasionally blitz Doncic to show him different looks and make others hurt them, but for the most part they are happy with letting the shot creators go to work on single coverage. Naturally, guys as talented as the ones the Mavs have will punish that coverage by scoring, but the Celtics are fine with that. Irving has struggled at the TD Garden, which is not a surprise, but Doncic has feasted, scoring 30 and 32 in the first two games, respectively. What neither Luka nor Kyrie have been able to do is create threes for the role players. Doncic has assisted on just one three and Irving on two threes. Against the Timberwolves in the conference finals, Luka had 41 assists leading to threes to any non-Kyrie Maverick and Kyrie had 26 discarding the ones he dished out to Doncic.

Boston tries to stay home on shooters and is extra careful not to help from the corners, which has limited the impact of P.J. Washington and Derrick Jones Jr. tremendously since they had both relied on corner threes, especially from the right corner, to punish defenses that left them open while struggling in the playoffs from above the break. Even when the role players get the ball with some space from beyond the arc, the Celtics just close out strong enough to get them to put the ball on the floor, which normally works well for the defense because Dallas doesn’t have creative scorers or ball handlers asides from the main two. There’s also normally help at the rim, so it’s not like a line drive will result in a dunk or uncontested layup. Dallas has too many perimeter role players that only offer static shooting, so it’s been all too easy for Boston to reduce their impact.

Rim-running is not enough for screeners to make an impact

Boston has not only limited the offensive output of perimeter role players but also the Mavericks’ centers. It all starts with the decision to put a perimeter defender, normally Jason Tatum, on the Mavericks’ center and switch if a screen comes to neutralize the 1-5 pick and rolls that Doncic is so good at running. As a result, the lobs and 4-on-3s that Daniel Gafford and especially Dereck Lively II (2.5 assists a game against the Timberwolves, one total assist so far against Boston) used to score and create in past rounds aren’t there. The two bigs can’t punish Tatum in the post either, and because Jones Jr. can’t shoot off the bounce or handle the ball, the Celtics’ center can hide on him.

Now, if Gafford or Lively were good outside shooters, they could simply space the floor, bringing out Al Horford or Kristaps Porzingis into the perimeter, while Jones Jr. sets the screens. Alas, they are rim-runners who space the floor vertically with their athleticism but can’t shoot or score in the post, so there’s no simple solution here.

What the Spurs can learn from the Finals so far

The Spurs won’t face these Celtics in the Finals anytime soon and recency bias shouldn’t erase the fact that the Mavericks carved up a great defensive Timberwolves team in the West Finals. But there are some general lessons San Antonio can learn from Boston’s success so far.

First, non-shooting forwards and bigs who can’t create their own shot can become unplayable or throw a wrench in an offense, even if the main ball handler is as talented as Doncic. Wembanyama will be fine, but Jeremy Sochan is the one to worry about here. We have seen opponents make things harder for San Antonio’s offense by putting their center on Sochan and ignoring him beyond the arc. Sochan is a better playmaker than Derrick Jones Jr. but at this point, he’s not a viable main ball handler and looks at his best off the ball.

Second, a lot of the guards and wings currently on the roster will have to improve their shooting significantly to be ideal complementary players. Blake Wesley is a complete non-shooter. Tre Jones made a small leap as a shooter but his success was based significantly on corner looks. Malaki Branham is more willing to pull the trigger from above the break than others — arguably more important than shooting percentage when it comes to spacing — and Keldon Johnson has no qualms with letting it fly from anywhere, but they are both questionable defensive players who don’t scare anyone from outside. Julian Champagnie is a two-way player but he’s only a spot-up threat.

The Spurs are fine for now. They are a young rebuilding team still trying to find its identity and mainstays, so comparing them directly to elite teams is foolish. Wembanyama also looks like a cheat code, which should solve a lot of potential issues.

Looking at trends and strategies and thinking about how they apply to what San Antonio is trying to build, however, can provide a road map or at least some guidelines to consider while assembling the roster. The front office is surely watching intently and taking notes.

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