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The Greatest Trick Rick Carlisle Ever Pulled Was Convincing The Spurs To Stop Passing

By Jeff Koch on April 30, 2014.

Dallas 103, San Antonio 109
Spurs lead series 3-2

Assists are often a helpful barometer for the Spurs team. Tonight the team registered 24 assists (to only 5 TOs, which is pretty incredible).

More than assists, though, is just pure ball movement. When this team is at its best, it uses ball (and player) movement to break down defenses, not one-on-one play. For this, you need the eye test. Tonight was the best I have seen this team move the ball all series.

It’s no coincidence that Carlisle’s defensive scheme was centered around switching and baiting the Spurs into playing one-on-one basketball. It’s not unlike the way in which the Spurs have often guarded Steve Nash or Chris Paul: take away the pass and dare them to beat you on their own. The Spurs kind of took the bait, even against their better judgment. It’s just too hard to resist Tony Parker isolated on Dalembert 20 feet from the basket. But while that can supply a basket or two, an offensive scheme it does not make.

A series is about great teams devising schemes, and great teams figuring out schemes. The Spurs have slowly been figuring things out (and kudos to Dallas for not yet having a stinker game), and tonight is just kind of came together on the offensive end. The ball was moving, zipping around the court, often leading to layups and uncontested jump shots in shooters’ sweet spots. The pick and roll was particularly devastating, as the Spurs just kept abusing the Dallas defense with it. Any combination of Tony or Manu and Tim and Tiago was just deadly.

Oh, you want to talk about Tiago and possibly the best quarter of NBA basketball he has ever played? OK, we can do that. 17-12-5, with tremendous D on Dirk. He’s secretly been the second best player for the Spurs in this series; tonight he was the best, without secret. The  cat is out of the bag. Tiago is a very good basketball player, and a key role in this Spurs team’s defensive and offensive schemes. He took a lot of heat (oh hey, a pun!) in the Finals last year, but that was just a bad series for him. Miami basically forces you to play with only one traditional big on the floor. But he was huge in the Western Conference playoffs, particularly against Memphis. This season he has quietly plugged along, anchoring the D with Tim and Kawhi.

The Dallas D just has no answer for him. Tiago is such a good roller and a hugely underrated passer. He made  crazy leading bounce passes to both Mills and Parker late in the game cutting to the basket that I still can’t believe happened. (All 3 of our main bigs are great passers.) He’s also been our best rebounder on both ends of the court this series. Dallas has been feasting off of second chance opportunities when he is not in the game. If we make it to the second round, Manu and Tiago will be the main reasons why.

Flipping that around, poor Marco Belinelli. He just can’t get anything going in this series, and he looks lost out there, trying to play within the system but also trying to force himself out of a slump. It’s a scary place to be in. I don’t think we’ll see much more of him in this series, but hopefully will get a fresh look if the team advances. I was thinking about this tonight: Marco is an improv player, thriving off of back cuts, slick passing, and playing within the flow of a game. This is why he plays so well with Manu. He is at his best in an open and free flowing game. But the playoffs aren’t improv: it’s a tightly scripted symphony. Every possession matters, every cut is made with intention and purpose, no action is done without forethought. As the game tightens and the floor shrinks, in a manner of speaking, the space for Marco to improv disappears. His shooting could still be a boon, but, again, he’s slumping and pressing.

Which is why I liked a subtle tweak Pop made in the second half. He gave Marco’s minutes to Danny Green at the end of the third, tailing into the 4th. Neither is really giving us anything on O, so we might as well get some solid D on the floor. And Danny isn’t playing poorly like Marco; Marco is pressing, Danny is just not getting open looks. Big difference. Danny was a critical part of last year’s run, and he understands his role, where his opportunities come, and what keeps him on the floor. He hasn’t stopped playing solid D (and had some huge defensive plays in the second half), and did hit a huge 3 in the 3rd.

We’ve also started to get something from Mills, which is making a big difference. His shot is still off, but Mills can still make positive contributions being a pest and just changing the entire energy and complexion of the game when he is in. Plus, make or miss, the Mavs have to respect his shot and his willingness to shoot.

This was the most complete game the Spurs have played yet. They weathered Vince Carter going unconscious and Dirk finally getting going. Still, game 6 is a tough test. A championship team takes care of that game, not relying on that Game 7 home court advantage in their pocket. But this Mavs team is  tough out, and I expect one hell of a game.

Game 6 is Friday night.

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