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Notebook game observations: Carlisle versus Popovich pick and roll masterclass

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All possible forms of pick and roll basketball were on display in this fun game.

Dallas Mavericks v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

Rick Carlisle called Gregg Popovich “The Grandmaster”. Carlisle also admitted Popovich threw some unusual wrinkles at his Mavericks yesterday.

“They were creating some confusion with switching and things like that.” - Rick Carlisle

But at the end, even the Grandmaster couldn’t stop the Carlisle and Doničić pick and roll. Pre-game, Popovich knew there was another master on display when he talked about Dončić:

“He is a quintessential basketball player,” Popovich said. “He has an intrinsic feel for the game. He was built for this game. He’s just in love with the game of basketball, and his skills are top-notch. He’s just a joy to watch.”

Let’s deep-dive into how this fun between basketball's best minds unfolded.

Prelude

In my pre-game observations, I tweeted about how LaMarcus Aldrige is the Spurs' weakest link this season.

It seems that age has caught up with Aldridge, who was never been the most athletic player to begin with. Aldridge is hurting the Spurs on the defensive side, as they have a defensive rating of 117.5 with him on the floor, and 103.9 when he is off the floor.

Carlisle and Popovich are both much smarter men than me and were obviously aware of Aldridge's defensive limitations. In this game, we watched them play a cat-and-mouse game of trying to attack (Carlise) and hide (Popovich) Aldridge in pick and roll situations.

Pop hides Aldridge on non-shooter from the get-go

Popovich started the game by hiding Aldridge on the worst shooter in the Mavericks starting lineup, Josh Green. The Spurs play a lineup with Aldridge as the only big, so this meant 6-foot-5 Keldon Johnson had to guard 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis.

The plan didn’t work, as Dallas scored on the first two possessions to start the game. We saw a Doncic-and-Porzingis pick and pop, and a pick and roll:

Even if the Spurs kept Aldridge off Porzingis, Dallas attacked him at every opportunity. On the third possession of the game, Aldridge picks up Porzingis in transition and Porzingis sets a quick drag screen for an easy bucket:

Carlisle adjusts and attacks with stack pick and rolls

Carlisle ran stack pick and roll actions, where a guard would set a second screen on Aldridge. Popovich's counter was to switch those to get Aldridge out of the action. That complicated pick and roll coverage for the Spurs. It also meant a better shooter (Brunson or Burke) than the initial screener (Iwundu or Cauley-Stein) would be open on the three-point line.

Here you can see four plays from the first quarter and how Spurs are struggling to solve the Mavericks stack pick and roll.

Allen Iverson actions with another guard to get Dončić downhill

Carlisle started Brunson for a second straight game to play alongside Dončić. In this game, I noticed Carlisle ran a lot of Iverson actions that involved the two guards. In an Iverson action, Brunson (or later Burke) is moving side to side across the court, creating plenty of movement. This makes it harder for the defense to focus on Dončić when the ball is reversed to him, as the defense is already in a catch-up mode. The handoff allows Dončić to attack the screen downhill.

Mavericks ran several successful Iverson actions in the second and third quarter of this game:

Pop defends Dončić with Mills and going under screens

Dončić started the game red-hot, scoring 19 points in the first quarter. Dončić shot 3-of-6 on three-point shots in that period. However, after that Dončić long-range shooting cooled off. For the rest of the game, Dončić shot 1-of-6 from beyond the arc. In the clutch, Popovich made an adjustment to put his best pick and roll defender, Patty Mills, on Dončić. Mills went under the screens on most pick and roll situations, and the tactic worked well. Then Spurs erased a 10 point lead in the fourth quarter.

In the clutch, Carlisle played his best shooters — Hardaway Jr., Brunson, Burke next to Porzingis, and Dončić. Yet, Popovich still had Aldridge defend Burke, rather than Porzingis. With the lead down to one and less than a minute to go, Dončić exploited that to make two key clutch plays.

On the first play, Dallas played a guard-guard spread pick and roll, a play they often revert to in the clutch. Since Aldridge was guarding Burke, that meant he had to switch on Dončić:

On the next possession with 25 seconds to go, Dončić called for the same play. Burke went to screen for Dončić, but this time Aldridge and Vassel are expecting the play. They switch before the screen, so Dončić rejects the screen. Dončić takes Mills off the dribble in an isolation play, and when the defense collapses around him in the pain, he finds Brunson in the corner for the game-winning shot:

It was a great play by Dončić and a great shot for Brunson. It’s great to see two guards who entered the league together developing chemistry on and off the court.