Last night’s loss, like all losses, can be attributed to a series of breakdowns. No one single player torpedoes a team, and no one play — even in the closing possessions of a tie game — is ever truly decisive. It’s like that old trope in baseball: The games in April mean every bit as much as the games in September. In basketball, the three points yielded by a blown possession in the second quarter count as much as a 3PM in the final set. Some might argue that the second quarter possession is even more important, because it informs both teams’ tactics down the stretch.
The Spurs go 8-20 from the arc on Monday night. For our purposes, let’s take a look at the combined effort of Roger Mason and Michael Finley, because they’re the guys a defensive team must attend to. Nothing against George Hill or Ime Udoka, but if they’re launching 3PAs en masse, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for your defense.
Mason and Finley are killers, and they combine for a 6-10 night from beyond the arc. Though the Clips put together a fairly solid defensive showing, their failings on the perimeter cost them the game:
- [1st, 9:49] Mason drops the ball into Tim Duncan at his favorite spot just off the left block against Marcus Camby. After the pass into Duncan, Mason cuts to the weak side corner. Mobley follows him. So here’s what you’ve got: Hill and Finley are way up high, being monitored by Baron and Thornton at the left and right elbows respectively. The double-team on Duncan is Baron’s — if the Clips decide that’s what they want to do.Here’s where San Antonio is do damned good, no matter who’s on the court with Tim Duncan. Every other Spur is waiting for Baron Davis to force the action. The instant Davis leaves his guy — Hill — to double Duncan, Hill dives to the hoop. This forces Thornton who, remember, is at the right elbow covering Finley, to pick up Hill. So now who has Finley?Mobley rotates over.But now who has Roger Mason?That would be no one.Finley passes the rock over to Mason, whose 3PA is good.Kaman was on F. Oberto, and had to make a tough call. Leaving Oberto directly under the basket with the ball in Finley’s hands at the top of the arc is probably a bad idea. But leaving Roger Mason open on the right wing with a wide open 3PA is also a bad idea.
The San Antonio Spurs: Forcing your defense to choose between two bad ideas since 1997.
Finley/Mason: 1-1 3PA
- [2nd, 4:37] This attempt is an object lesson in the value of transition offense. The Spurs race the ball upcourt — this is a relative term for San Antonio. Mason is Mobley’s cover. Cat beats Mason downcourt, but quickly settles at the top of the circle. This allows Mason to receive a pass from Finley and step into a 3PA. Mobley doesn’t have much time to close and gets away with one.
Finley/Mason 1-2 3PA
- [2nd, 4:18] The whole league is upside-down. PHX is now a bottom-half pace team, and since when did the Spurs become a transition team? This parallel universe is confounding. Mason pushes the ball upcourt, which completely scrambles the Clippers. Finley immediately darts to the left corner, and only Mike Taylor — not his natural cover — is there. Before th Clips can get set, Finley has already launched a 3PA over Taylor.
Finley/Mason 2-3 3PA
- [3rd, 7:37] This is an individual breakdown and requires no detail: Al Thornton is somehow under the impression that he’s covering Kurt Thomas off the ball on the weak side, when his guy is actually a few feet over. And that guy’s name is Michael Finley. And he’s standing where Michael Finley was born to stand — in the corner of a basketball court beyond the three-point line. So while Baron Davis and Marcus Camby are doing a beautiful job on the Hill/Duncan S/R switching and recovering, Al Thornton is wrestling with Thomas on the weak side block. Hill sees Finley all alone and makes an easy pass to him.You can see a deflated Thornton — with the guilty lunge of a defender who knows he fucked up royally — scamper to close. Forget about it.
Finley/Mason 3-4 3PA
- [3rd, 2:55] Those transition buckets aside, everything for San Antonio materializes from the Duncan S/R. Here it’s with Vaughn against Baron/Camby, who both do a nice job cutting Vaughn off from Duncan. The ball goes into Bonner in the left corner, and Kaman steps up to smother him. So far, so good.Bonner puts the ball on the floor and drives toward the center of the court. Kaman stays with him, but as penetrates into the lane, the Clippers freak out. Camby converges on him, which makes sense. But why does Cuttino Mobley feel the need to leave Roger Mason all alone on the weak side? Since when does a driving Matt Bonner — already well-accounted for by Chris Kaman and now meeting Camby — demand a third defender?Bonner passes the rock off to Duncan under the basket, who gets it over to Mason with an easy touch pass. 3PM.
Finley/Mason 4-5 3PA
- [3rd, 0:47] The Clippers man up nicely on this set, and get the defensive result they want. Now part of this is the fact that Oberto is a helluva lot easier to deal with on a high S/R than Duncan. But credit where credit is due. Vaughn/Oberto run the S/R on the right side against Taylor/Kaman. It doesn’t yield much. So the ball goes over to Mason on the weak side for a reset. They try again, this time a Mason/Oberto drag. Kaman covers it pretty well. The right play for Mason here is to get the ball over to FInley in the left corner, because EJ is cheating a little bit. But Mason isn’t all that great a passer and instead settles for a contested 3PA with about :08 left on the shot clock with Mobley’s hand in his face. No good.
Finley/Mason 4-6 3PA
- [4th, 10:52] Nothing much to report other than some more lousy transition defense. After picking Al Thornton’s pocket, Vaughn pushes the ball up. Gordon is ahead of the play. He and Udoka are the first guys across the court for their respective squads, so Gordon follows Udoka to the right corner. Only problem? Who’s picking up Finley?Nobody.
Finley/Mason 5-7 3PA
- [4th, 10:37] Ironically, Gordon does a much worse job on this set about 15 seconds later. Vaughn pushes it up, albeit it’s not a full break. Vaughn drives into the heart of the lane. Thornton is there to contest him, but Gordon — rather than staying at home on one of the best three-point shooters of his generation in his favorite spot — decides to come over to help defend the likes of Vaughn, who can’t finish to save his life, and certainly not when he’s flailing into the lane against a guy who has 4 inches on him. You know what Vaughn can do? Dart a little pass over to a wide open Finley.Though Finley misses the 3PA, this is a lousy decision by the rookie. The Clips are lucky a nine-point game doesn’t become a 12-point deficit.
Finley/Mason 5-8 3PA
- [4th, 2:51] San Antonio Spurs basketball at its finest. You know the set: Mason sends the ball into Duncan at the left post, then cuts to the weak side. Meanwhile, Vaughn and Finley are hanging out up top, being monitored at the respective elbows by Baron and R. Davis. Baron has to decide when to double. The second he does, his guy — Vaughn — dives.Here’s the problem. In this instance, Kaman’s guy, Matt Bonner, is pretty well sealed off in the right corner. Kaman is a much better candidate to pick up the cutting Vaughn. And even if that weren’t the case, there’s absolutely nobody in position to rotate over on Finley.
Ricky Davis has to read this. He has to be able to say, “You know what? Given the choice between letting Jacque Vaughn dive through a crowded lane vs. leaving Michael Finley completely alone at the top of the arc, I’ll choose the former — particularly since my center is pretty well-positioned under the hoop.” Ricky Davis isn’t very good at making those sorts of judgment calls. And this is why a 28-year-old athlete of his talent is coming off the bench for a 1-9 team.There’s nobody to close on Finley when Duncan passes it over to him.Finley misses the shot, but that’s not the point. You don’t hit on 16 against a 5, just because it worked on a whim last time.
If Nate Silver ran a simulation of this set 10,000 times with Ricky Davis trailing Vaughn on all 10,000 instances, Finley nails that wide, wide, open uncontested shot about 6,500-7,000 times, I’m guessing.
Finley/Mason 5-9 3PA
- [4th, :08.4] Reprint from Game Recap: Everyone in the building knows what’s coming: A high S/R with Tim Duncan and the Spurs’ best shooter. Tonight, that’s Roger Mason. At this point, he’s 8-15 from the field [2-4 from beyond the arc]. He holds the ball up top against Ricky Davis as the clock winds down. There’s about a five second differential between the shot and game clocks. With about :12/:07, Duncan finally comes up from from the low post. Camby follows him closely. The pick is solid — a thick wall to Davis’ left. Mason dribbles right and there’s no way R. Davis is getting around Duncan before Mason can find a warm spot on the arc. Another, even bigger problem: Camby overcommits left. By the time he can recover, Mason has elevated for the 3PA. Camby isn’t in close enough proximity to close.
Finley/Mason 6-10 3PA
Playing defense in the NBA is a series of events. We tend to dwell on the familiar ones: The epic one-on-one isolation set between the top scorer and top defender, or a fierce trap on a S/R, or a rugged battle in the post, or steals that turn into transition buckets. These are the flashy moments we use as reference points when measuring the quality of a team’s defense.
The truth, though, is much more prosaic. Most nights, a team isn’t going to fail because they can’t cover a scorer on the wing. They’re going to fail because they make the wrong call on decisions like whether to stay at home on a hot Michael Finley or to converge on Jacque Vaughn. Or whether to leave Roger Mason to be the third defender to collapse on Matt Bonner.
These are the little moments that decide basketball games on the defensive end — not getting beat off the dribble by Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson. Everybody gets beat off the dribble by Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson. But not everyone leaves sharpshooters wide open in order to converge on lesser talents who are diving to the hoop, even though there’s already an adequate defensive presence to meet him.
On a side note, I stayed late after the game last night to watch my friend, Mike, in the Los Angeles Dodgeball Society‘s match between Bandanarama and Fun Active Gentlemen’s Society [F.A.G.S.] for the Silver Lake Division championship. After the Clippers slunk off to their locker room, the Staples Center crew converted the hardwood to a dodgeball court. The FAGS, 8-1-1 going into the finals and decked out in purple tank tops with glittered gold script, took down Bandanarama 5-2 to win the title. They dominated the hipsters of Bandanarama on the attack line, in catches, strikes — in virtually every facet of the match.
Though the F.A.G.S. were playing on the Clippers’ home court, the vibe was far more electric than a Clips game. For one, the Clippers don’t play Le Tigre during live action, and they certainly don’t have a bikini-clad muscle dude cavorting on the scorer’s table.
For those of you threatening to give up your Clips season tickets, I highly recommend the LADS as a solid recreational alternative for your leisure time.