By Rob Mahoney
SAN ANTONIO -- Star players have seen defensive coverages of all kinds as the studious coaches around the league work themselves weary attempting to give their teams the slightest tactical advantage. Matchup possibilities are toggled, various approaches considered and most every option entertained -- all for the fool's errand of trying to keep the NBA's most potent players in check. Even the best defensive teams fail regularly to prevent those standouts from scoring in bulk or controlling the game because, on some nights, even smart, well-employed coverage isn't enough.
On other nights, though, a team can sneak away with an unexpected victory by working hard and playings its cards right over a full 48 minutes -- as the Heat did to improbably beat the Spurs on Sunday without LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Mario Chalmers. One would think that without Chalmers' ball pressure, James' help and Wade's selective gambles, containing Tony Parker might prove impossible. But the Heat were as aggressive as ever in contending with the Spurs' point guard in pick-and-roll situations and opted to continue in their high-pressure coverage to great effect -- even without superstar safety nets. Parker was held to 12 points (on 4-of-14 shooting) and eight assists, the kind of mark that an opponent can manage and overcome, as Miami did.
The Heat succeeded because of a communal effort to preempt Parker's deadly work in the pick-and-roll. Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen and Shane Battier stepped up high and hard to repel Parker's maneuvers around every potential ball screen, pushing the dynamic All-Star farther from the lane and all of the playmaking opportunities it provides.
"It's tough, especially guarding TP [Tony Parker], man," Bosh said. "It's kind of like you have to attack him before he attacks you, because if he attacks you, you're probably not going to win that battle too many times. He's so low to the ground, so quick and so skilled. We just wanted to really affect him and make it a little tougher on him than what he usually sees."
The Heat accomplished that and then some, as the pressure on Parker was balanced by hard, controlled close-outs on San Antonio's perimeter shooters and smart placement of Miami's interior defenders. Pledging one big man to trap Parker so aggressively puts a lot of pressure on the defensive back line, but the Heat bigs did a fantastic job of staying mobile and attentive while zoning up the lane or the weak side until the trapping big man could recover.
"We practice [those traps] all the time," Bosh said. "We have big guys who can move their feet very well, and that's a part of our defense. Sometimes, if we have to, we can affect the ball."
All of this requires a precise and delicate rhythm, and few teams are capable of exerting that kind of push without compromising their own balance. The choreography involved is just much more complex than simply running an extra defender at Parker or nudging a big man in his direction when the Spurs look to set a screen. It takes discipline and repetition to execute those kinds of plays consistently, but when the alternative is an easy trip for Parker into the paint, even a mad defensive scramble to contend with the Spurs' perfectly appropriated offense seems favorable.
"For some reason, some [teams] don't affect the ball [against the Spurs], and it's Tony Parker driving down and they're dropping," Bosh said. "That just doesn't work all the time."
Even the slightest bit of breathing room is too much for Parker, who needs very little space to create high-value shots and draw fouls consistently. Sometimes he's still able to so despite such concerted defensive pressure. But a successful run of traps can occasionally edge the Spurs out of their pick-and-roll game and into isolation sequences, like this one with Parker challenging Norris Cole:
Considering the usual caliber of the Spurs' execution, that possession is a clear victory for the defense -- even if Cole does lose his footing at the end.
And likewise, even moving Parker off the ball a bit doesn't completely remedy the problem, despite the fact that he has gradually become an incredibly effective cutter and curl shooter. San Antonio can draw points from moving Parker around and allowing Tim Duncan and the other Spurs to set him up to score, but lost in the translation of sequences like this one are the tangential opportunities lost:
That's a productive offensive sequence, but one that requires a tough shot and doesn't totally replace what's lost in terms of Parker's drives and gravitational pull on defenders. Parker is ball-dominant for a reason, after all; though he may not control the offense at all times a la Suns-era Steve Nash, the advantages he creates provide the primary fuel for the Spurs against quality defenses and playoff-caliber opponents.
As a result of all of the aforementioned defensive pressure, San Antonio can start to grow tentative about setting on-ball screens over the course of a game, which is understandable under the circumstances. The traps can be tricky to deal with at times, but are tougher still because of Parker's lack of playmaking help among his perimeter-stationed teammates. The exception is Manu Ginobili, but he missed Sunday's game with a hamstring injury that is expected to sideline him for three to four weeks, putting his availability for the start of the playoffs in question. His absence deprives the Spurs of a creative player who could alleviate Parker's ball-handling burden.
Making matters worse, Parker is slowly working his way into form after returning early from an ankle injury. He can and will deal with traps more effectively as he eases back into shape. (To his credit, he actually made the right reads and plays on a pretty consistent basis despite Miami's blanket coverage. The shots didn't fall and the Heat defended like crazy, but Parker did his part to move the ball away from the trap without committing turnovers.)
"Without Manu, Tony's the guy who has to generate things for us," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, "and [the Heat] pretty much took him out with all their double teams and hard hedges. We just didn't generate offense anywhere else except through Timmy." Parker figures to face a gauntlet of pick-and-roll traps with Ginobili out. The 30-year-old is both clever and quick enough to beat that pressure on many nights. But the Spurs' odd offensive performance on Sunday is reason enough to wonder what might become of this team in the postseason if Ginobili isn't healthy and helpful, and if players like Duncan and Kawhi Leonard aren't able to provide just a bit more help than they did against the Heat.