Behind Chris Paul's exploits and a well-planned roster that fits his talents very well, the New Orleans Hornets storm into their Western Conference semifinal series as the home team and the "favorite," at least by seeding. They take on a team, in the San Antonio Spurs, that relishes opportunities to take away their opponent's best player. Think back to last year's NBA Finals, in which the Spurs held LeBron James under his averages in several major categories, including scoring and field goal percentage). The Spurs will create a defensive game plan that takes away Paul's strengths, and will switch it up on Paul early and often to prevent him from finding a rhythm and getting comfortable.
The Hornets and Spurs split their season series. Paul was defended in a number of different ways during those games, seeing blitz traps, run-and-jump switches, soft man-to-man pressure, straight zones and just about everything in between. Throughout, the Spurs made a concerted effort to force Paul to score, attempting to take away passing angles and easy assists to whatever degree possible. Against the Spurs, Paul averaged nearly two assists fewer per game (11.6 to 9.8), while he shot the ball better against them (.534 to .488) than he did for the season as a while. His scoring average did not change much, however.
In most situations, the Spurs will play Paul relatively straight up. Their on-ball defender will give Paul perhaps a half-a-step more than he would most other point guards. Paul, while a terrific offensive talent, is self-conscious about taking too many shots. He is unselfish, almost to a fault. The Spurs will therefore take a step back to protect against his ability to penetrate. In addition, they will show some commitment from the help defenders to take away his dribble penetration early. However, once Paul breaks down his on-ball defender and gets to one step off the lane, the Spurs will adjust their defense to take away Paul's passing angles. This will leave him to finish the play on his own in the lane over his on-ball defender. While he is very capable of getting this done, he was reluctant to do so when the Mavericks employed this tactic, and I would expect the Spurs to test Paul's desire to score early in games.
In this series, I would expect a heavy mixture of traps with soft pressure. The Spurs are a very disciplined, efficient, and intelligent defensive team. They will change their specific defense of Paul depending on a number of factors, including the personnel on the floor for both teams, the time and score of the game, and the situation.
The Spurs execute their rotations and communicate so well that I would expect them to feel confident in blitz trapping Chris Paul at times throughout games, particularly as it gets to crunch time and they want the ball out of his hands. Unlike the Mavericks, who attempted this strategy in the first two games of their series (when Paul averaged 33.5 points on 64% shooting and 13.5 assists), the Spurs have two major advantages that allow them to be more aggressive with Paul. First, they have a host of capable on-ball defenders with either the quickness (Parker, Damon Stoudamire, Manu Ginobili) or the strength (Bruce Bowen, Michael Finley) to match up with Paul and not allow him easy attack angles to the lane. Second, their rotations are remarkably better than those of the Mavericks. They simply do not give up open shots, holding teams to just .444 from the field on the season. The open shots that were there for players like Stojakovic, David West and others in the first round against the Mavericks will not be there in the second round against the Spurs.
Let's see how this might apply on a single possession. The Hornets run high screen-and-roll with Tyson Chandler stepping out to screen for Paul. With this much space to operate, Paul absolutely destroyed the Dallas Mavericks early in their series as they attempted to step out and blitz trap him coming off that screen. The Spurs will learn from this mistake. Later in the series, the Mavericks went under this screen, leaving their big man in the lane, and basically dared Paul to beat them with his shooting. This early in the game, I would expect the Spurs to go with a similar tactic. Because Chandler is not a threat to shape up and shoot the outside shot, they do not risk anything aside from Paul's jumper. When he is not getting into the lane, he is not nearly as effective a player for the Hornets.
This tactic changes drastically when the ball screen moves to the wing and the screener is Peja Stojakovic. Now, they have to step up to defend the screener, or Peja will present as a three-point shooter. At the same time, they do not want to allow easy penetration from Paul. Here, the Spurs will either switch the screen (this will depend on who is guarding each player, as the Spurs will not want to switch Tony Parker onto Stojakovic for fear of a post-up and a foul on Parker) or they will flatten the screen. This means that Peja's defender will step up and get very tight on Stojakovic's low hip. Paul's defender will then slide under the screen, again daring Paul to shoot from the outside while keeping him out of the lane. Parker's quickness and the Spurs' ability to communicate will both be critical on this score, as a failure of either will result in dribble penetration from Paul and an open shot for the Hornets.
Now, Chris Paul is the type of player who actually feasts on overly-aggressive play. If the Spurs use the aggression of traps and run-and-jumps as a change-up of sorts to their normal man-to-man pressure, this will be much more effective than staying with this aggressive-style defense for too many possessions. Paul's ability to draw out double-teams, to sell players to over-commit on bad angles, and to change speeds to get past defenders means that as he gets into a groove against super-aggressive pressure, he starts to beat not just one defender, but multiple defenders. Once he does, he is running a mini-fastbreak against an unsettled, rotating defense. No matter how good San Antonio is defensively, I'll put my money on Chris Paul making a play in that situation every single time.
The most dangerous place for the Spurs to face Paul is in transition. There are no solutions for stopping Paul when he has a head of steam with Chandler streaking toward the rim and Stojakovic sprinting to the three-point line. You want to avoid giving him easy transition layups, and you want to avoid giving him the opportunity to give his teammates confidence and the crowd energy by throwing the monster alley-oop or the kickout for the dagger three-ball. The defender in transition against Paul, typically Parker or Ginobili, wants to sag back in the lane, protecting the rim at all costs. The idea is to invite Paul to pull-up and shoot a jump shot. As soon as Paul brings the ball into shooting position, the defender can move out to challenge so long as he isn't giving Paul an easy pass for a layup by doing so. In Game Four of the Hornets/Mavericks series, Dallas used this tactic to frustrate Paul early. Jannero Pargo watched the Mavs do this to Paul, and so he came in very aggressive seeking his shot. When Paul re-entered the game, he also aggressively attacked this strategy, with much better results.
I will be interested to see how much the Spurs shadow Chris Paul in fullcourt defense. Against the Mavericks, Paul saw consistent pressure bringing the ball up the floor. In the first two games, the Mavericks attempted to deny Paul by running multiple defenders at him. He absolutely tore through this defense. Over the rest of the series, the Mavericks sent Jason Terry to apply token pressure, pestering Paul and not giving him a free pass up the floor into the operational area. While they did not turn him over, the defense was designed to give Paul something to consider, to attack him mentally. It is hard to discern the cumulative effect of this kind of pressure on Paul. Whether the Spurs will employ the strategy will be something to look for during the series.
The Spurs' will likely defend Chris Paul in a way that limits his opportunities at numerical advantages. He is a very talented player, but his nature and the way he truly becomes involved is when the entire defense is geared up and aggressive toward him. He is a rare player who actually improves the more defenses overextend against him. In short, he makes super-aggressive defenses pay. The Spurs will need to maintain their disciplined approach and mix up their looks to keep him churning mentally.
This is not to say there isn't a place for the Spurs to come after Paul. Mixing in the occasional hard trap or chest-to-chest denial should be a part of the repertoire, but I believe the majority of the time the Spurs will force Paul to beat them by himself. There will be times during this series that Paul does this and makes it look easy, and we know with a superstar there is no perfect answer. However, whatever combination of the above that the Spurs use during the course of this series will give us a lot of insight into the way teams will defend him for the rest of his career.
At the very least, it will be a real treat to watch one of the best defenses over the last 10 years take on one of the most dynamic players over the next 10 years. Enjoy!
Anthony Macri is a Player Development Specialist for The Basketball Academy and the Pro Training Center at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida, where he trains high school, college and NBA players. To email him, click here.
Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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