Before the Mavs made up a five-point deficit in two minutes, and before Vince Carter hit the game-winning shot heard ’round the world, we saw a true battle of wits in Game 3. Dallas and San Antonio both played their best offensive game of the series, forcing each team’s defense to dig deep in search of anything to stop the scoring.
In the end, the Mavericks made just enough adjustments to grab a last-second win in one of greatest and most tactically sound games ever played at the American Airlines Center. Here’s a look at how the Mavs made it happen.
The Spurs were able to keep the electric Monta Ellis out of the paint for the most part in Game 1, and that was a big reason San Antonio walked away with a victory. But in the last two games, Ellis has really forced the issue on the perimeter and getting to the rim at whatever cost. After taking just three shots at the rim in Game 1 (making two), Ellis was 4-of-10 at the rim in Game 2 and 4-of-6 there in Game 3. His six made field goals in the paint on Saturday is his series-high.
It’s paying off. Per SportVU, the Mavs are scoring 11.7 points per game on Ellis drives in the playoffs, third-most in the league. In addition, the 1.41 points Dallas scores per Ellis drive is by far the highest mark among players with at least six drives per game in the post-season. In other words, if Ellis can get to the rim, Dallas is most likely going to come away with points.
The Spurs have thrown everything they can at Ellis throughout the series to keep him on the perimeter, at times even building human walls in the paint and giving him open jump shots. But on Saturday it didn’t matter what San Antonio tried to do against Ellis. He was getting to the rim, and no one was stopping him.
In addition to getting Monta in the lane, the Mavs made two very subtle changes defensively that had very positive results. And in a contest as close as Game 3, even the slightest tweaks can impact the final result.
One of the Spurs’ biggest matchup advantages throughout the series has been utilizing Kawhi Leonard’s size in the post against some of the Mavs’ smaller guards. Anytime the Spurs run a set that results in a post touch for Leonard, the Mavs have scrambled to double him. For example, when matched up against Monta Ellis in the first quarter, Leonard catches the ball in the post and is immediately double-teamed.
After Shawn Marion arrives to help, Leonard immediately kicks it out to Tony Parker, with 11 seconds still on the clock, plenty of time for San Antonio to run something else to generate a quality look. In the meantime, Marion’s man, Boris Diaw, slipped to the rim. That forces Sam Dalembert to sink off Tim Duncan in order to prevent any pass to Diaw. Once Parker makes the catch, Duncan sets a quick screen for Parker and the result is a wide-open jumper.
Dalembert was so far off of Duncan once the Mavs doubled that he doesn’t have enough time to recover to contest the Parker jump shot. But after seeing those looks for Leonard a few times throughout Games 1, 2, and the early part of Game 3, the Mavs made a slight adjustment that ended up working out.
In the play above, Devin Harris is fronting Leonard, or playing between him and Parker, the ball-handler. Parker can’t get the ball in to Leonard unless he lobs a pass over the top, but that’s a risk, as Dalembert is lurking not far away. But not only is Harris denying the entry pass; his struggle for position against Leonard is also draining precious seconds off San Antonio’s shot clock.
Parker can’t get the ball in to Leonard, so he eventually swung it to Diaw. After a few more seconds of grappling on the block, the Spurs eventually got the ball into the post — but only with eight seconds left to shoot. Once Leonard made the catch, Nowitzki arrived to double-team, and because he didn’t have much time to work with, Leonard committed an offensive foul while trying to put up a last-second three-pointer.
There’s a monumental difference between making a catch with eight seconds left versus 12 seconds left. The Spurs don’t like milking the shot clock all the way down to its final few ticks, so anything Dallas can do to essentially waste the Spurs’ time works in the Mavs’ favor. In the second half, San Antonio tried a similar play, but Harris fronted again. Leonard didn’t touch the ball on that possession. By fronting the Spurs’ bigger wing in Game 3, Dallas essentially erased one of the Spurs’ most important advantages.
Dallas used the 2-3 zone effectively in the team’s final regular season meeting against San Antonio on April 10, but until Saturday the Mavs hadn’t used the zone at all throughout the series. That isn’t to say, however, that the Mavs used it much in Game 3, either. In fact, Dallas only deployed the zone on one or two possessions in the game, but — like so many other Mavs adjustments — it paid off.
At a critical juncture in the game — with less than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter — Dallas debuted its matchup zone made famous during the Mavs’ 2011 championship run. During the regular season and in earlier playoff meetings the Spurs have typically run an “overload” offense against the Dallas zone, basically flooding one side of the floor with as many players as possible to try and get an open look somewhere. However, San Antonio ran no such play against the Dallas zone on this possession, and ended up tossing the ball around the floor to no effect before Danny Green attempted a tough jumper off the dribble. The miss resulted in a long rebound which kickstarted a Dallas fast break the other way, and after a smart Marion find, Devin Harris sank a wide-open three-pointer to give the Mavs the lead.
It’s difficult to set up a 2-3 zone on defense after a miss on the offensive end — especially against a team which enjoys fast breaks as much as the Spurs — but don’t be surprised to see Dallas use some more 2-3 if the Mavs’ personnel doesn’t match up well with San Antonio’s. If anything, it will give the Spurs one more thing to think about and plan for before Monday’s Game 4. And if the quality of play we saw in Game 3 is any indication of what’s yet to come, Game 4 will be the most exciting and interesting tilt yet.
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