Sexy? No. Systematic? Yes. Spurs just won't go away
MAY 26, 2013 1:48a ET
Take a bow, San Antonio Spurs ... again.
Moments after helping the Spurs push the Memphis Grizzlies into an 0-3 hole in the Western Conference finals, San Antonio superstar Tim Duncan was asked to explain the details of his team’s ability to persevere.
Duncan, who provided 24 points and 10 rebounds at a spry 37 years of age, said he and his teammates simply trusted the system.
And, when the variables of the San Antonio system are considered, the irony is quite apparent.
For contrast, let’s look at the other three teams competing in the NBA’s Final Four.
We’ll start in Miami, where the magnificent LeBron James and his elite superstar Heat cronies are attempting to parlay their interpretation of small ball into a second consecutive championship.
Miami’s style features galactic athletes surrounded by specialty skilled co-workers. The Indiana Pacers have played Miami to a 1-1 standstill behind a system that relies on inside gristle and overall defensive commitment.
The Grizzlies, who fell to the Spurs in overtime on Saturday, are cut from the same metal as the Pacers.
That leaves us with the Spurs, whose aforementioned system is at the same time simple and complex. With Duncan and sardonic wizard Gregg Popovich as poker faces of the franchise, the Spurs’ system is defined by doing whatever it takes to win.
Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
Try to explain how San Antonio wins games now – and how it won games in the past – and it’s tricky to distill the Spurs’ tactics into a tidy box.
And that’s why the Spurs have been harder to get rid of than the stray cousin who shows up on your doorstep.
A look at efficiency numbers for the past season helps us tell the story of a team with only one lottery pick (Duncan, first overall) in its rotation.
OK, a quick check at the defensive metrics tells us the Spurs – for their regular-season services -- are ranked third among teams still alive in the NBA playoffs. They’re also ranked third in the entire league.
Right, this survival of the defensive fittest tells us being good at defense is a good idea. The Heat, by the way, finished at a very respectable ninth.
The Spurs also managed to save sufficient energy and focus to end the first 82 games ranked seventh in offensive efficiency. Miami, which still has considerable stumbling required to make us doubt their title candidacy, was second in points per 100 possessions.
The Grizzlies and Pacers were 17th and 19th, respectively.
What those of us following along also continue to notice is Popovich’s ability to convince his players to take whatever the opposing defense allows the Spurs to take.
In Tuesday’s Game 2, it meant the Grizzlies’ collapse of the lane would enable wing snipers Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to combine for five 3-point makes in nine attempts. Star point guard Tony Parker did squeeze off 20 shots that evening, but his inability to find pristine finishing opportunities led to an 18-assist night.
With the Memphis defense staying home to prevent the Spurs’ precious corner 3s, Leonard and Green combined for a meager seven points in Game 3. But with the lane a bit less congested, Parker and Duncan were able to massage their pick-and-roll party into a combined 50 points.
The Spurs’ system registered with the sixth-fastest tempo (possessions per 48 minutes) in the league this season. That’s one place higher than last season, but it's eight higher than the season before that and 13 places above where San Antonio ranked for pace three seasons prior.
This suggests that with Duncan and his low-post dominance on the decline, Popovich adjusted. The adjustment put more emphasis on the transition ability of the zippy Parker and the slashing skill of Manu Ginobili.
But while Pop altered tactics to fit his personnel, the personnel made similar changes; that requires an impressive buy-in. The biggest shift was performed by Duncan, who lost weight to assist mobility in a commitment to sort of reinvent his game.
Now working more from mid-range, Duncan – who has keyed four title runs since arriving in San Antonio – was named first-team, All-NBA for the first time since 2007.
Even though an unprecedented collapse is all that’s separating San Antonio from another Finals appearance, the Spur-ification of the NBA still isn’t reflected in merchandising or promotional juice.
But check the job histories in many NBA personnel offices and you’ll realize the system certainly has its place.