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The Space Between

By Jeff Koch on February 9, 2011.

San Antonio 111, Toronto 100  //  44-8  //  1st in the West

3 feet won this game for us.

In last year’s playoff loss to the Suns, I noticed something strange during the games. When Richard Jefferson was in the corner, he wasn’t standing behind the 3-point line. He was about 3 feet in. When a penetrator would drive the lane on that side of the court, it would be clogged, as Jefferson’s defender could easily squeeze in and clog the lane. If the ball kicked out to Jefferson, the defender would have an easier time recovering and contesting the shot. So instead of getting a chance at 3 points with more space, we ended up with a contested (and more difficult) 2-point shot. Those 3 feet mucked up a lot in our offense, and the entire team suffered for it.

More than anything, it was those 3 feet that Jefferson vowed to work on that got him a new contract and back on this team.

Watching the Spurs, we often take offensive spacing for granted, because everybody is usually exactly where they should be at all times, maximizing sweet spots and high-efficiency shots. While we rely heavily on the 3-ball and less on Tim Duncan, the offense still works inside-out. The inside is just more penetration and less Duncan on the low block. But the penetration collapses the defense, freeing up the 3-pointer. And if the defense doesn’t collapse, then we have a free shot at the rim. But the ability to have 3 to 4 effective 3-point shooters on the floor at all times keys everything the team does on offense.

Watching the Raptors tonight really drove home just how important spacing is, and how well the Spurs do it. Because the Raptors don’t. So many times, players were shooting 18-20 foot jump shots, just a step or two inside the 3-point line. The poor spacing shrinks the court, allowing the defense to dig in. For 3 quarters, the Raptors were making these shots at an impressive clip. But this is the shot that we want opposing teams to take, because eventually the worm will turn, and the shots will stop going in. Once that happens, the offense will mostly be out of options, because the defense will have claimed the interior. Without any 3-point shooters to loosen up the defense, and with the offense working outside-in, the Spurs ran away with the game in the 4th quarter because the long 2-point jumpers started missing. And missing. And missing. And the Spurs kept working inside-out, getting just about everything they wanted offensively (it certainly helped that DeJuan Blair had the quarter of his life, completely owning the offensive paint).

The numbers bear this out. The Spurs scored an astounding 70 points in the paint and 18 points from behind the line. That’s 88 of 111 points, or 79% of the scoring. The Raptors, by contrast, scored 40 points in the paint and 9 points from behind the line, for 49 of 100, 49%. Inside-out vs. outside-in.

And 3 very important feet.

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