The make or break play in the NBA is and always has been the pick-and-roll. Teams that can run it well and defend it well are almost always atop the league’s standings.
Last year the Suns were torched defensively time and time again because they couldn’t defend the all-important play. Steve Nash struggled to fight through screens, which left the offensive player licking his chops with a chance to drive right at the laterally-challenged Shaquille O’Neal.
On the other side of the ball, the Spurs have always defended the Suns’ pick-and-roll as well as anyone in the league. They’ve hedged high and hard on Nash, while oftentimes taking away a streaking Amare Stoudemire.
But this time around things have been different.
Through three games, the Suns have been able to carve up the Spurs’ defense courtesy of the pick-and-roll. With so many shooters on the floor for Phoenix and a less-mobile San Antonio front line, the Spurs can no longer bring the hard hedge on Nash.
Because of the Suns’ shooting prowess and San Antonio’s not-so-athletic bigs, the Spurs have been forced to switch screens, leaving Duncan, Antonio McDyess or DeJuan Blair in a one-on-one against Nash.
And we all know what Nash does with mismatches. He has it down to an art form. After the switch he backpedals toward the halfcourt line to gain a full head of steam. If he sees the defender teetering back he gives a quick shake and pulls up for a midrange jumper. If he sees the big man leaning one way or another, he attacks the weak point and usually finishes with a layup or dishes it for an open three.
Nash reads these situations as well as anyone in the NBA, which is why the Spurs’ screens switches have been one of the biggest reasons for Phoenix’s improved offensive success in this series in comparison to prior San Antonio series. It was evident in Game 1 when the Suns’ ball handler shot 66.7 percent from the floor out of the pick-and-roll, which was used 16.8 percent of the time, according to Synergy Sports Technology. More often than not that ball handler is Nash, and he scored 10 of his 17 first-quarter points out of the pick-and-roll.
If the Spurs’ big man was late on his hedge, Nash burned him for a layup. But even if he came in time, Nash would slow things down and make him pay from the outside.
The Spurs did a better job defending Nash and the pick-and-roll in Game 2, as the Suns shot 45.5 percent out of it. But the Spurs’ sub-par pick-and-roll defense was most evident in Game 3, especially down the stretch. The Suns ball-handler shot 58.3 percent from the field out of the pick-and-roll Friday night, and none were more important than the makes by Goran Dragic and Leandro Barbosa.
Almost all of Dragic’s points came after the Spurs switched a pick. His 26-point barrage got started when he hit a three after Matt Bonner switched onto him because of a screen and gave him too much breathing room around the perimeter. Then on the first offensive sequence of the fourth quarter, Dragic found himself isolated on Blair at the top of the key. He drove right past the rookie, put on the breaks and showed off his footwork with an up-and-under, right-handed scoop shot.
Dragic was successful once again after Duncan switched out on him. Goran once again drove right, ball faked again and finished with a floater in the lane. His next bucket was also a product of the pick-and-roll, as Barbosa set a weak screen, George Hill and Parker didn’t communicate and Dragic banged in a three.
He once again toyed with Duncan late in the fourth when he did his best Nash impression. Duncan made the switch, Dragic backed him up, faked the drive right and stepped back to drill one of his five three-pointers on the night.
Barbosa also tore up Spurs big men with his speed and shooting. With Blair on him after a switch via the pick-and-roll, Barbosa used his patented right to left crossover to finish with a layup high off the glass. Later in the quarter the two were in the same situation. Wary of the drive, Blair backed up and Barbosa splashed a three from the top of the key.
Needless to say, the Suns’ guards are simply too quick and too good of shooters to not take advantage of a slower Duncan or Blair, and it was clear in Game 3 down the stretch.
The Spurs used to be one of the best in the league at taking away Phoenix’s pick-and-roll game, but these days both teams are different, and this time around the Suns’ guards are toying with San Antonio’s bigs. Because of that the Spurs find themselves in an unfamiliar spot against Phoenix — on the brink of elimination.