The San Antonio Spurs shot 14 of 29 from 3-point range in Game 1 against the Memphis Grizzlies. It's pretty rare to shoot that well (48.3 percent) from 3-point range in an NBA game this season. It only happened in 12.0 percent of games during the 2012-13 season. The Grizzlies only allowed an opponent to shoot that percentage or better in six of their games.
The Grizzlies were the second-best team in the NBA at defending the 3-point shot this season, giving up just 33.8 percent from downtown. In the playoffs, they've held to that standard by allowing just 33.7 percent from 3-point range. And yet the Spurs were able to execute their offense enough to knock down 14 3-pointers in one game against them.
How did it happen?
The Spurs did three things really well in Game 1 to ensure their shooters got great looks against the second-best defensive team in the NBA.
First, they did a great job of getting dribble penetration into the lane. When that happened, Memphis seemed to be aggressive in trying to stop the ball handler and cut off any chance of him scoring at the basket. There's one problem with that defensive plan by the Grizzlies: The Spurs used it to their advantage.
Here are the six 3-pointers the Spurs hit thanks to dribble penetration:
It didn't matter what angle the Spurs attacked the Grizzlies from, they were able to draw in the defenders and either kick it to the corner or find someone above the break for a great look at the 3. And it's not that the Grizzlies played bad defense initially on the play. They usually got picked and recovered well. It's just that the rotation to the shooters seemed almost like it wasn't part of the plan for Memphis. There's no way that can be true against one of the top shooting teams in the NBA, but that's what the Spurs' offense made it look like.
Here are the points of breakdown for each of those 3s in GIF form:
Other than the Kawhi Leonard 3 from the left wing, the Spurs didn't just get the ball to shooters, but they got the ball to shooters in their sweet spots. Leonard had three looks from the right corner, where he shoots an incredible 49.0 percent. Tony Parker got a great look for Danny Green on the strong side of the defense by drawing in three defenders. Manu Ginobili created an open look for Matt Bonner on the right wing. And the Grizzlies defense never seemed to know how to stop it.
The second way they created a lot of great looks was by using their perimeter passing and, more important, the threat of their perimeter passing. The Spurs didn't just create 3s off dribble penetration. They used pick-and-pop plays along with pick-and-stand-there plays to draw the defense away from the shooter and make them pay.
Here's the video of their four made 3-pointers off of perimeter passing:
Two of these plays came from a result of the threat of the extra pass that San Antonio is known for making and the other two came from defensive confusion by the Spurs screening. The threat of the extra pass was an interesting way to create looks because the Grizzlies almost seemed resigned at times to allowing a good shooter to take an open 3 just so another good shooter didn't get a pass to take an open 3. It's a very "damned if you do, damned if you don't" type of mentality.
On the two 3s that had the threat of the open pass, Memphis left Bonner open so he couldn't make the pass to either Cory Joseph or Ginobili. I know Bonner wasn't great in the 3-point contest, but that seems like a poor decision. Memphis was so turned around by the Spurs' decision-making it left the better shooter in both scenarios. For the other two 3-pointers, Tayshaun Prince really hurt them with his defensive decisions. He didn't catch Bonner fading to the right wing, and he didn't switch out to Ginobili on the other. They just had bad defensive breakdowns all night.
The third way the Spurs destroyed the Grizzlies from outside was with an inside-out approach. They were able to turn a couple of post-ups and a pass inside into three big 3-pointers. Here's the video:
These aren't even tricky plays to defend. The Grizzlies just seemed to commit improperly on each play and leave open passing lanes by doing a poor job of rotating. Tony Allen gambled and missed against Tim Duncan when he was being defended by Marc Gasol. Then Tiago Splitter drew too much against Zach Randolph. Finally, Boris Diaw used his passing ability and a bad play by Quincy Pondexter to get the defense out of sorts.
The gamble by Allen was a decent attempt to draw a turnover and get some momentum on their side, but Duncan was going against the Defensive Player of the Year on that play. If you're going to gamble by helping away from Green, you have to get the steal. On the second 3-pointer from that video, Conley has to find Green in the corner a lot quicker. And the third 3-pointer was just a battered defense giving in easily.
This is the problem the Spurs pose to opposing teams. Risk giving up points inside or make sure your aggressive perimeter defense gets the ball stolen or deflected before the passer can find the initial shooting option. The Grizzlies can probably find a happy medium defensively by trusting their bigs to stop points in the paint and still rotate well toward the shooters.
But if they want the Spurs' great outside shooting to slow down, they also have to do something rare. They have to stop the Spurs' offensive execution.