Comparing the defenses of the Pistons and Spurs
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Finals is a defensive clinicBy John Hollinger
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If you're looking for offensive explosions, you might have to wait until November. The 2005 NBA Finals have been all about defense in the first two games. Neither team has reached 100 points yet – in fact, Detroit hasn't even reached 80.
This shouldn't surprise anybody who followed the two clubs when they routinely suffocated opponents' attacks during the regular season. The Spurs ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency (my measure of points allowed per 100 possessions) at 95.8, while the Pistons weren't too shabby themselves, finishing third at 97.9.
They're not exactly Johnny-come-latelies, either. A year ago, the Spurs were first and the Pistons a close second, and of course it was Detroit's dominating defense that put the kibosh on the Lakers' dynasty in the 2004 Finals.
Each team's strengths have been obvious in the first two games, and a few from last night stand out:
• Early in the first quarter, Tayshaun Prince posted up Manu Ginobili on the right block. It's usually a bread-and-butter play for Detroit, but it has netted the Pistons virtually nothing against the Spurs. First, Ginobili fronts Prince to make the entry pass difficult. Then, once Prince catches, Ginobili overplays Prince's dominant left hand. This sets up a spin baseline for Prince, but that's exactly where San Antonio wants him to go, because Tim Duncan is waiting on the baseline. With no options, Prince can only return the ball back outside.
• In the second quarter, Brent Barry brought the ball up the right sideline as a few other Spurs jogged upcourt. Normally this is no big deal, but Detroit's ball hawks smell blood. Richard Hamilton and Lindsey Hunter ad lib a trap as Barry crosses midcourt. Carlos Arroyo cuts off the closest passing lane, forcing Barry to throw crosscourt. Rasheed Wallace steps in to intercept the pass and starts a Detroit fast break.
• One of the most common maneuvers in pro basketball is for a guard to penetrate on one side, go under the basket and throw it to the opposite corner for an open jumper. That move has done nothing for either side in the Finals, because Detroit and San Antonio rotate so quickly, the man in the opposite corner is covered. Both teams had multiple turnovers trying this play in Game 2.
• Even the mistakes stand out. In the third quarter, Barry and Robert Horry botched a pick-and-roll defense, leaving Wallace wide open for a jumper. It might have been the only defensive miscue San Antonio made all night, and the Spurs were up by 17 at the time. But that didn't stop Gregg Popovich from calling a timeout and berating the both of them.
Considering such defensive dynamos are battling for the championship, let's take a look at what makes these two defenses tick. As you'll see, they have very different ways of accomplishing the same result:
Stopping the 3
The Spurs' specialty is starving opponents of 3-point shots. They figure they won't have to deal with a hot 3-point shooter if they never allow a good look from downtown, and it seems to be working. San Antonio permitted only 10.0 3-point attempts per game this season, leading the league. Considering the league average was 15.8, the Spurs cut out more than a third of their opponents' tries from out there.
Detroit gave up more of an average total of 14.8 per game. However, the Pistons excelled at something else – reducing the percentage. Detroit ranked second in 3-point percentage against, holding opponents to 33.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc. San Antonio permitted 36.7 percent, which was worse than the league average. Overall, the Spurs reduced quantity while the Pistons reduced quality.
Detroit was one of the best in the league at this, and had to be. With a rotation that had only six quality players, it behooved the Pistons to avoid foul trouble at all costs. They did it, allowing only 21.8 free-throw attempts per game. That narrowly missed being the league's best figure – Phoenix allowed 21.6. Of course, the Suns played much less intense defense, making the Pistons' accomplishment much more impressive.
San Antonio also fared well here. The Spurs allowed 23.8 foul shots per game, sixth in the NBA. Interestingly, the Spurs' defensive stats might have been even better if they hadn't been slightly unlucky with their opponents' foul shooting. Teams shot 76.8 percent from the line against the Spurs, beating the league average of 75.6 percent. Since one can't "defend" foul shots, this suggests the Spurs were about 0.2 points per game better than their already awesome stats indicate.
Surprise, surprise. If you think of great defenses as swarming masses that force turnovers in bunches, these two teams might change your opinion. As great as they are in other areas, neither is particularly great at forcing turnovers. San Antonio was above average, creating miscues on 15.8 percent of opponent possessions to rank sixth in the league, but that still put the Spurs behind the Bobcats. Meanwhile, Detroit opponents turned it over just 14.5 percent of the time, putting the Pistons in the bottom half of the league.
Additionally, the turnovers that both teams forced tended to be offensive errors rather than sly pickpocketing. Both clubs were below the league average in steals, meaning most of the turnovers came on plays such as offensive fouls, shot-clock violations and the like.
Getting the boards
Good luck getting second shots against these teams. Controlling the defensive glass is a double whammy, as it also eliminates the high-percentage putbacks that pad a team's field-goal percentage. As former Detroit coach Chuck Daly recently told the Detroit Free Press about the current Pistons, "We didn't give up second shots, we rebounded, took care of things so the other team only got one crack to score. And that's what they're doing. It's a solid formula that works."
Indeed it does. San Antonio ranked third in defensive rebounding percentage, while the Pistons were fifth. This category is doubly important for both teams, because they both force so many missed shots. Since they create relatively few turnovers and rarely foul, there are tons of shots clanging off the rim when one of these teams is involved.
Finally, there's the most important category, field-goal percentage. "This is a make or miss league," is one of Jeff Van Gundy's favorite quotes, and indeed that is what usually determines the winner. But against San Antonio and Detroit, it's usually just a "miss" league. The Spurs and Pistons were second and third, respectively, in opponent field-goal percentage.
Again, an example from Game 2 is in order. Hubie Brown kept bringing up how many close-in shots Detroit missed in the first half, but that's par for the course against the Spurs. The close shots aren't necessarily easy shots, because so many long arms are in the way of the shooter. For an indication of just how troublesome it is to complete an inside shot against either of these teams, check out another stat – blocked shots. The Spurs were second in the NBA, the Pistons third. Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Duncan, Rasho Nesterovic and Nazr Mohammed all sent back more than a shot per game.
These teams shut people down because, other than forcing turnovers, they're good at everything. San Antonio is better at cutting off 3-pointers while Detroit is better at avoiding fouls. But in the big picture, it boils down to one simple reason these defenses are so dominant: They make it very difficult for opponents to make shots.
John Hollinger, author of "Pro Basketball Forecast 2004-05," is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider. Click here to contact John
Re: Comparing the defenses of the Pistons and Spurs
Good read! Interesting to see which Finals team focuses on which parts of defense. I knew some things and I knew the Pistons didn't get a lot of foul shots against them, but this number is impressive ... unfortunately ;).