Head Games

How "survive and advance" became "react or go home"
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It's the thing that broadcasters talk about and columnists decry in its absence, but "making adjustments" doesn't quite sum up the counterpunching dynamism of the NBA Playoffs. At this point, the glass-jawed coaches are at home, icing vigorously and updating their resumes. What's left are the best teams, sure, but also the tacticians savvy enough to compete in the playoffs' high-speed, high-stakes chessboxing matches.

The basketball court is the chessboard, and strategies fluctuate not just from game to game but quarter to quarter and even play-by-play. It helps to have such transcendent pieces to play with, of course, but recognizing, countering and counter-countering is where some coaches earn their money and others lose their job. The basketball is what we watch, of course, as it should be. But in the series between the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs—both the best and best-coached of the current postseason match-ups—the oscillation between desperation and dominance, on both sides of the chessboard, has been pretty thrilling. Coaching is just coaching, but this has been different. Or, anyway, better.

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The Spurs have three of the five best players in the series, and bring with them an aircraft carrier's worth of experience compared to Golden State’s under-stocked canoe. The Warriors, for their part, had Stephen Curry—just one player, but one who had proven himself capable of winning games more or less on his own before rolling his ankle earlier in the series. The healthy Curry cannot be stopped by highly motivated 6-7 athletic freaks strapped into Nikes, let alone paunchy, stressed-out middle-aged men yelling from a bench. But the healthy Curry has not been in evidence in either of the last two games of the series, and so here we are, with San Antonio up 3-2 and the guarantee of a Game 6 at Oracle Arena.

A resurgent, or at least pain-free, Curry would upend the series anew. But in that Curry's absence, there has still been plenty of counter-programming. Since Curry hurt his ankle, Tony Parker has been the best offensive player in the series, but his presence on the court has created problems on the other end. Problems that Golden State is still eager to exploit, even though San Antonio appears to have figured things out.

When Parker began the series on defense, he was forced to chase the quicker Curry—one of the very few NBA players to whom Parker gives up a quickness advantage—through off-ball screens and above high picks, while also staying in front of him off the dribble. Parker, unsurprisingly and undeniably, couldn't do it. He wasn’t tall enough or long enough for this duty, and so to prevent Curry from completely taking over the game, the Spurs often appointed a more suitable option, like Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard.

What was the downstream effect? Well, Parker had to cover somebody, and more times than not that somebody was 20-year-old stretch-four prodigy Harrison Barnes, who has already shown an ability to dominate with his back to the basket and to who Parker gave up nearly half a foot in height.

This worked, when it worked, because Parker's performance on offense was so great. But, perhaps paradoxically, things worked a bit better for the Spurs when Parker came off the court. Then, San Antonio’s defense was much better able to match-up. Leonard can guard Klay Thompson and Green can guard Curry, or vice-versa. Someone who isn't a point guard can guard Harrison Barnes. All good. But not nearly a permanent solution. This was an adjustment, and it was good, but of course it begat another one in return.

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In Game 4, the Warriors ran some early action that saw Barnes setting high screens for Curry, forcing a switch to bring Green on him (and off Barnes) so that the ball could then be swung to the rookie, who had Parker on his back.

Here was Golden State choosing to abuse Parker, instead of settling for the match-up when San Antonio decided to take him off Curry. Mark Jackson sought this opportunity out for two reasons: guarding a 6’8”, 220-pound man-child like Barnes is physically demanding even for someone who isn't a spindly Francophone point guard, and beating Parker up when he’s on defense could negatively impact his ability to create with the ball later in the game. The more advanced aspect of the decision was to put pressure on the opposing coach. This frankly untenable match-up places the proverbial ball in Gregg Popovich’s court—will he take Parker out of the game so that Thompson, Curry, and Barnes can all be matched up with capable defenders? Stick with his playmaker and deal with it on defense? One way or another, Pop would have to make a move.

He did, of course, and the decision to have Gary Neal guard Barnes during the second half of Game 4—and putting Parker on Jarrett Jack—was brushed aside by Jackson, who simply had his guys continue on with the same game plan, running a quick switch to put Barnes in the post against Parker. Before trying that, Barnes simply backed Neal down, getting a few high percentage looks in the process. Harrison Barnes is really good.

But then the next turn in play—Popovich waited for, and received, an unforced error from Jackson. Jackson became a little too cute in playing the tantalizing mismatch card; what had worked brilliantly before now led to Richard Jefferson posting up a smaller player like Cory Joseph. (Quick tangent: This is the NBA playoffs, and in no parallel universe should any basketball team at any level be using one of their offensive possessions to run a post-up through Richard Jefferson.) An adjustment got Jackson and the Warriors an advantage, here, but a refusal to re-adjust lost it.

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In Game 2 the Spurs switched on pick-and-rolls involving Parker’s man, and the Warriors responded by taking advantage of the mismatch, whether it be Barnes or Thompson, while Leonard or Green stuck to Curry. The Spurs had done a decent job bringing help in these situations, but not enough to get the ball moving and away from Parker’s man.

Three games—and a hobbled Curry—later, and Parker is covering Jack whenever both players are on the court, or simply sticking to a slower Curry and fighting above screens. During Game 5’s blowout victory, Parker wisely and no doubt at his coach's behest avoided Barnes at all costs, finding himself matched up with him on only two possessions in which a shot was attempted, per information from Synergy Sports. Both those shots went in. It remains good strategy to put Harrison Barnes up against Tony Parker; it took great coaching to ensure that it would stop happening.

Did the Spurs ever really have an answer for Barnes post-ups on Parker? The answer is probably no. They simply lucked out when Curry hurt himself, which afforded Parker a convenient place to hide. But luck is a part of chess, too, as it is a part of everything else. This series has been a master class in counterpunching, and while Pop—grizzled both metaphorically and physically, as good as anyone who has ever done it—seized the advantage, it seems far from over. Jackson will need to modify an arrangement that just one week ago had him looking like a genius. His challenge, now, is that of every remaining coach in the playoffs—react, or go home.


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