MINNEAPOLIS -- I finally got Pop'd.
For those who don't know, "getting Pop'd" is when you ask a question that San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich refuses to answer while giving you a bit of a biting quip.
It's almost every journalist's rite of passage in the NBA world when you're dealing with one of the most successful coaches in league history. And I'm pretty surprised it didn't happen earlier in dealing with Popovich. I've been in media scrums a few times with him over the past couple of years, but the last two times I asked him a question, I figured one of them would leave him momentarily exasperated.
Back on Feb. 6, the Spurs were visiting Minneapolis and I asked Popovich before the game about adjusting their attack with just Tony Parker on the floor (Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili were out). At the time, I was worried I'd get Pop'd and not receive a real answer, but he gave me a great answer about not asking his players to do anything out of the norm for their system.
Tuesday night, the Spurs returned to Minneapolis and I found myself in the pregame media scrum. The questions from the reporters weren't really flowing like they normally would with a coach before the game. Everybody seemed hesitant, so I decided to ask him about how you defend a 3-point shooting team like the Spurs, who are so good at attacking from the corners. And that's when Pop got me:
"If I had that answer, do you think I'd give it to you?"
And that's where Popovich and the Spurs often get everybody; they seem to have the answers and secrets to team success and system above everything else. The key to the Spurs' offensive system is that the ball movement never seems to stop. Whether it's one of their stars receiving a pass or one of their selfless role players who wants to stay in line with the game plan, the system remains strong and intact.
The two times the Minnesota Timberwolves have hosted the Spurs this season have been very different. When the Spurs earned a 104-94 victory over the Wolves in February, the team made 10 of 25 from 3-point range, assisted on 24 of their 37 shots, and Danny Green made a career-high eight 3-pointers. Tuesday night, San Antonio made just 9 of 29 from 3-point range. They started 4 of 9 from beyond the arc in the first quarter, and then managed just 5 of 20 the rest of the game.
So how does a team defend a 3-point shooting team like the Spurs and chase them off the line?
"Well, you got to do it," Wolves coach Rick Adelman said before the game. "They're a great 3-point shooting team. Their system is such that they've got penetrators and they move the ball. Like I said, they lead the league in assists. It's just not one guy; it's just not Tony (Parker). It's the whole team.
"They know they're in their spots, they get to the right spots, and their philosophy is to look for those 3s. And we have to find a way to do it."
That's the thing with the Spurs; there doesn't seem to be a strategy out there to chase them off the 3-point line other than "we have to find a way to do it."
San Antonio does lead the NBA in assists per game, even when you adjust for pace. They also are fourth in the NBA in 3-point percentage (38.1 percent), eighth in the NBA in making corner 3-pointers (41.2 percent), and eighth in the NBA in making above the break 3-pointers (36.7 percent). They're consistent in everything they do offensively.
Dribble penetrate, kick the ball out to the shooter when the defense collapses, and swing it around the perimeter until the defense can't catch up to the passing.
In the February road game, the Wolves' defense was horrendous against the dribble penetration and kickout methods of the Spurs.
In this clip from February, the Wolves initially played solid defense against the Spurs on the kickout to the corner. Luke Ridnour closed hard on Green, forcing him to give up the ball. But the Spurs kept moving, and eventually found Nikola Pekovic switched to Green on the perimeter. It's mistakes like these that the Spurs' system and its players know how to capitalize on so often.
It leaves you just hoping you'll get lucky and they'll miss.
This was another example from the February game in which the Spurs used dribble penetration off of a pick-and-roll play. The Wolves were caught between Alexey Shved and Ricky Rubio not rotating back to the corner and Green knocked down another three. If your defensive units don't remained disciplined in their rotations and assignments, you're essentially leaving really good shooters for open or mildly contested shots.
Something that seems basic, but you often see teams messing up within their own offense, is spacing. On the Kawhi Leonard 3-pointer from the corner, Leonard and Boris Diaw find themselves in the same space near the right corner. The simple rotation of Diaw vacating the area while Parker drives into the paint to draw the slow defense is why the Spurs always find these great looks.
They just don't make many mistakes with spacing or ball movement. It's why they have the second best team assist-to-turnover ratio in the NBA. Popovich's system keeps moving at all times. Because as you get a defense moving side-to-side, it breaks down and loses the fundamental principles you hope maintain through each possession.
Looking at how the Wolves defended the Spurs' 3-point shooting Tuesday night, it was certainly a better effort but the Spurs also just missed shots they normally knock down.
The Wolves started the game with Ridnour defending Green and trying to fight through the many screens the Spurs run him off of throughout any given possession. Green popped to the top of arc off of a staggered double screen, and got the type of look he was knocking down in Minnesota just one month prior. This time, though, the Wolves got lucky and Green missed back iron against a soft contest by Ridnour.
In the previous meeting, Mickael Gelabale was relatively new to the Wolves' roster and looked lost on defense in basic rotations. This time against the Spurs, he seemed much more prepared to defend within the Wolves' unit and played this perimeter ball movement perfectly. He not only began to flash to Cory Joseph near the top, but he recovered well to contest the Stephen Jackson corner 3-point attempt.
Minnesota wasn't getting these kinds of defensive moments consistently against the Spurs last time.
On this possession, they ran Green to that top spot on the right wing. It's a zone Green has made 50 percent of his 86 3-point attempts from this season. Instead of hoping for the guard to break through a set of screens and clutter, the Wolves switched the action and had Gelabale close out on Green once he received the pass. Green still got a good look but it was defended a lot better than we usually see.
After that, you're just hoping the Spurs miss.
And that's the thing with defending the Spurs; they employ so many selfless shooters within their system that they have no issue with moving the ball until you get the best look possible in that possession. And they do that for 96 possessions a game. They test your defensive rotations constantly, just waiting to wear you down. Popovich rarely has his guys just isolate against a single defender and have them go to work against a five-man defensive setup.
You're always battling the Spurs' five players on the floor, rarely getting time off to recover.
This is what happens when you play the Spurs. You try to stick to your principles as much as you can and just hope not to get Pop'd.