The Spurs have plateaued at a perpetual elite level of play mostly because of the sustained greatness of their three biggest stars. All three have aged relatively gracefully (albeit Manu’s injury problems of late have been the first sign of true wear and tear) and despite the increased role of guys like Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, and Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio still lives and dies by the play of their big three. Early on in this Golden State series, at least defensively, the Spurs are dying.
For much of the season Tim Duncan was among a select few considered as a candidate for DPOY, his effectiveness on that end only limited to his playing time on the court. Tony Parker, while never elite, remained a good defender relying on the strength, speed, and experience that makes him such a force on offense. Manu is a little bit of the odd man out in this defensive trio, never being considered an adept defender even in his prime but he usually plays smart on that end and doesn’t take the kind of gambles that so often make average perimeter defenders terrible ones.
Things have changed in this series, however, as all three are getting worked on the defensive end both falling to the curse of bad match-ups and the frustration that leads to lazy gambling. Parker is understandably having trouble guarding the seemingly unstoppable force of shooting that Steph Curry has become but the Spurs are running out of options of where to put him when both Curry and Thompson share the floor. Thompson towers over Parker and, as poor Ty Lawson and the Denver Nuggets showed us last series, this Warriors backcourt will feast on defenders they can shoot over.
The solution the Spurs came up with was to hid Parker on Harrison Barnes when they go small, a decent enough matchup in theory given Barnes’ unformed post game and Parker’s strength. However, Barnes has used this postseason as his launching pad into much improved play and every time he finds himself being guarded by Parker, he immediately backs him down into the post. For all his strength, a 6’2” guard can only do so much and help has to inevitably come from a Spurs big, which eventually leads to a breakdown defensively.
Barnes’ passing out of these semi-double teams have repeatedly burned San Antonio and have made the Spurs last hiding option for Parker nearly completely inviable. It is most likely better for the Spurs to avoid that natural instinct to help a teammate getting outmuscled in the post, as Barnes’ post game is one that needs a bit of work. However, this too is not without its own risks.
Much in the same vein, Manu’s defense has also been exploited and has been a major factor in San Antonio’s inability to seal off dribble penetration. Ginobili’s perimeter defense, or lack there of, was a major contributor to Klay Thompson’s monster game two as he repeatedly blew past Manu when he was matched up with him. Additionally, Manu has taken up a habit of gambling off shooters, something that is especially unwise to do when you are playing the Warriors. This gambling has been a bit bigger part of Manu’s defense of late but its gotten to Monta Ellis levels of bad in this series.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have Tim Duncan. In Duncan’s heyday his ability to strike fear into the hearts of ball handlers with his aggressive hedging in the pick and roll was unparalleled. However as age wore his mobility down, his defense started sinking further and further back into the paint. As with everything, Duncan mastered this new play style of defending the pick and roll becoming adept at corralling the penetrating ball handler into his clutches where a block was inevitably waiting to meet their fearful layup attempt. This style, though, does not lend itself well when playing the Warriors, as both Curry and Thompson are more than happy to forgo the adventure into the paint altogether and take the open jump shot that is being ceded to them.
For this reason, Duncan is forced to revert to his old way of defending pick and roll, this time doing so with significantly less athleticism. This lack of mobility has proved all the difference as Curry especially is using his excellent (and somehow still underrated) handle to navigate constant blow-by’s past Duncan. The two clips also give a pretty good idea of the trouble Parker is having trying to keep Curry in front of him.
In summation, the Spurs are having a lot of defensive issues, and they are mostly stemming from the top. Potential solutions to these problems, like more rotating back line defense for Duncan or a double team to help Parker on Thompson, just bring more problems. It seems like, once again, the Warriors are proving to be a matchup nightmare and it may be time for the Spurs to give way to the up and down series that this is fast becoming. Only there can they start to take advantage of Golden State’s own defensive issues, much in the way the Warriors are taking such delight in breaking down the Spurs’.