The best basketball players in the world make the game look simple, but when it comes to the NBA at least, it is often anything but. Explaining the on-court action at the highest level, especially when it comes to defensive breakdowns, often requires a nuanced examination that sometimes exposes deeper, systemic issues that are bigger than a player simply making a mental error.
This definitely holds true to the Matt Bonner Problem the Memphis Grizzlies had yesterday afternoon. As the Spurs 3-point ace feasted on open looks all game long, many in the Twittersphere were calling for the head of whichever Grizzlies defender (mainly Darrell Arthur) was foolish enough to leave one of the most accurate perimeter marksmen in the league. But Arthur, who certainly isn’t a flawless defender, was mainly a scapegoat for an unrefined Memphis defense that for the past few years has built its reputation by relying far more pure chaos — of which Tony Allen is often the catalyst — rather than disciplined system like you’d see in Chicago or Boston.
What Bonner, Gregg Popovich and Spurs exposed with their sharp execution and excellent ball movement wasn’t so much shoddy individual defending but the general lack of a detailed plan for these scenarios. Each of four 3-pointers made by San Antonio’s resident sandwich expert were the result of completely different mistakes, made, with one exception, by different players — a major red flag for Memphis going forward. Here’s a look at each of those Bonner makes and what they tell us.
Play #1: Ginobili in space is a very dangerous thing
With just under two minutes to go in the second quarter, Manu Ginobili receives a screen from Boris Diaw on the left slot. Zach Randolph plays a “loose” coverage, looking to contain the drive from Ginobili as the on-ball defender, Quincy Pondexter, trails over the top of the screen. The crafty Argentine widens his arc as he comes off and manages to pull Randolph into a switch. From there, Ginobili gets to the middle of the paint, collapsing the Memphis defense and kicking out to a wide open Bonner on the perimeter for a wide open look.
The mismatch, while clearly not something that worked in Randolph’s favor, certainly shouldn’t have been a deathblow in and of itself. Teams like the Bulls drill their bigs (and all players, really) to position their stance in order to influence a player to drive into help, which for Chicago is “towards the baseline.” Randolph instead chooses to try to make Ginobili drive with his weaker right hand, which on some level makes sense, but in doing so he makes two big mistakes — he gives up the middle of the floor (a major no-no which we’ll get to in a sec) and positions his feet so poorly while influencing him right that the Spurs guard can blow right by him with minimal effort.
Middle penetration is typically the absolute worst-case scenario for a defense. When the ball gets into the paint, defenses are forced to collapse and give up open shots, offensive rebound positioning or fouls. It’s why teams like Boston, Chicago and San Antonio build defensive systems that keep everything away from the middle of the court and makes you wonder why Randolph would actively concede such prime real estate.
The blame game: Player’s get drawn into switches at times, so it’s hard to fault Randolph for that. It is, however, entirely on him when it comes to his lazy foot positioning after the switch. But the whole “forcing middle” thing is where you encounter a massive gray area that lies player mistakes and coaching mistakes.
Detailed teams will cover these scenarios practices in walkthroughs so it’s entirely possible that Randolph was supposed to force baseline and screwed up. If he was supposed to force this iso to the middle, then Jerryd Bayless does a very poor job of pinching the driving gap and forcing a non-penetrating pass back out to the top of the key.
That said, it’s also possible that head coach Lionel Hollins didn’t have a special plan for these situations and Randolph made his own judgement, went by the scouting report and tried to make Manu use his weak hand. Either way, the player that isn’t at fault is Arthur. The Memphis big man simply reacted to a middle drive and collapsed down to try and stop the ball before it got to the rim– something he’s been trained for years to do as a frontcourt player and shouldn’t have had to do had Randolph, Bayless and Hollins been on the same page.
The Play: Know your personnel
Just a possession later, the Spurs push after a Memphis miss and run an early pick-and-pop between Bonner and guard Gary Neal. Arthur looks to string out Neal, a poor maneuver against a shooter like Bonner, while Bayless goes over the top of the screen. This combination gives Arthur no chance to recover and contest the Bonner 3.
The Blame Game:
The standard coverage against a pick-and-pop guy like Bonner is to stay attached to him and hedge one step toward halfcourt while the on-ball defender goes underneath. Both Bayless and Arthur did the exact opposite of that which again leads to question of whether it was player error or two unprepared Grizzlies making things up on the fly.
If that was the right coverage, then a small part of the blame goes to Keyon Dooling, who was poorly positioned to “stunt and recover” on Bonner.
Dooling should be located near the elbow in his off ball positioning, a “gap 2” position that would allow him get to Bonner on the air time of the pass, stunting and disrupting a quick catch-and-shoot, while still being able to scramble back to his own man, Corey Joseph, lurking near the break.
The fact that all three players seem so out of sync suggests that Hollins and his players need to tighten up the details on defending this action.
The Play: Ol’ Faithful
Bonner’s next 3 comes later in the second quarter. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan execute a pick-and-roll on the left wing that gets forced to the baseline. As Duncan dives to the rim, Ed Davis, guarding Bonner all the way up at the top of the key, drops down on the rolling Duncan. Parker sees this and makes an easy pass out to Bonner for the open jumper.
The Blame Game:
It’s easy to blame the young Davis for making what looks like an idiotic decision. But it is very likely that the pre-game plan, whenever Duncan was involved in a pick-and-roll, was rotate big to big in order to avoid a smaller wing be forced to rotate onto the Spurs big man and, in turn, be forced to battle him the post.
With Davis being just a second-year player in his first playoffs, it’s entirely possible he missed that this coverage was only in effect during the times Bonner was on the bench. Then again, there’s a chance that Hollins and the Memphis staff made it a hard and fast rule and Davis was just following orders. If it’s the latter, then Tony Allen is almost solely at fault for skimping on his duties to stunt and Bonner and force him to make the +1 pass to Ginobili on the wing.
Allen is already recovering back to his own man as Bonner is going back into his shooting motion when instead he should be stunting aggressively enough that Bonner either makes the extra pass or is forced to drive left into a crowd. It’s an incredibly selfish play on Allen’s part as he’s choosing to let someone else’s man score (and thus let Davis get blamed) rather his own mark possibly get a shot off because Allen helped a teammate.
The Play: Double trouble
San Antonio pushes after a miss in transition again, with Ginobili moving into the frontcourt and receiving a double ball screen from Bonner and Tiago Splitter. Like in Bonner’s second make, Arthur gets caught stringing out Ginobili while Bonner pops to the wing with no one near him. The result, of course, was another made 3.
The Blame Game: It should be noted that this play — the double drag in transition — is really hard to defend, especially since it’s not really a staple action for the Spurs (though they do run it enough for it to have been scouted). Ideally, the play would have been defended with Arthur sticking tight to Bonner and Gasol sagging back near the nail as Manu turns the corner. This would require Prince to do what he does already, trail over the top, and Gasol to quickly move into position to stop Ginobili from immediately coming off the screen and attacking the rim (Arthur would also have to jam Splitter or at least slow his roll and not just stay glued to Bonner). Like I said, it’s a viscous play to stop.
What actually happens is Gasol gets lazy and merely calls for a switch, having Arthur try to stop the ball handler while he just stays deep and picks up a rolling Splitter. Not only does this have a very ad hoc feel to it, but it’s another somewhat selfish play on the part of a highly acclaimed Memphis defender (It should be noted, that Gasol, for all his great defensive attributes, isn’t always good about communicating screens or getting in a great defensive position during pick-and-rolls).
Nitpicking at Gasol’s work on this play and consequently placing the fault at his feet overlooks the fact that his on-the-fly switch tells us one of two things — he either blatantly ignored the proper coverage, or there was no real coverage in place for this action to begin with and he adjusted on the fly to something that wasn’t ideal for the situation. Given all the pleasant things we hear about the Spanish big man and the general theme of coaching clumsiness coming up during these breakdowns, my money is on the latter.