Never write off the Spurs, but ...
It was the fourth quarter of another Suns-Spurs skirmish and the San Antonio strategy on this particular Sunday was the same as it's been for several years.
With the Phoenix offense going through co-stars Steve Nash and Amare' Stoudemire, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was deploying a trap-the-ball tactic against the Suns' signature high screen-and-roll game. Pop usually allows Nash a reasonable bit of screen-roll freedom for three quarters and puts the squeeze on in the final 12 minutes.
Unfortunately, veteran San Antonio post man Tim Duncan, who'd been busy annihilating Suns sophomore Robin Lopez at the other end of the Spurs' home floor, no longer seemed to have the quickness to achieve the proper angle to prevent Nash from turning the corner off the dribble. With Duncan unable to make senior-citizen Nash slow down or space-dribble backward, teammate George Hill couldn't get past the screening Stoudemire quickly enough to trap the ball.
With that cushion between defenders available, the needle-threading Nash was able to find slip-screening Stoudemire, who was throwing haymakers through the rim ahead of San Antonio's back-side rotation. In the good ol' days, when the Spurs were executing their defensive maneuvers and winning playoff series, those traps and rotations were pristine.
Ironically, the Suns -- historically challenged when the opposition has the ball -- executed the trap of a late-game Spurs screen-roll and Phoenix forward Jared Dudley rotated at the proper time to intercept a pass. But two-time, NBA slam-dunk champ Jason Richardson missed on the enusing breakaway-jam attempt and San Antonio held on for its sixth victory in 11 February games.
So, even though they were a pedestrian 4-4 on this year's Rodeo Road Trip, the 33-24 Spurs should not have dirt lobbed on their quest for a deep playoff run, right? Well, I'd like to admit that -- with Pop rationing minutes for Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- the Spurs should not be slept on once the playoffs begins. I also would like to point out that Hill just continues to get better, off-season acquisition Richard Jefferson was way above average off the bench against Phoenix and could be a force in the coming weeks, and rookie DeJuan Blair gives San Antonio a powerful force to assist Duncan.
I'd like to write that things will be just dandy in San Antonio, but I can't.
While all of those things written two paragraphs earlier are true, the Spurs currently sit in seventh place in the Western Conference standings with a closing schedule that does them few favors. Here's what's troubling: they have a combined mark of 4-10 against the top four teams in each conference, but still have 10 games remaining against a gauntlet starring the Cleveland Cavaliers (two), Los Angeles Lakers (two), Orlando Magic (two) Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets.
With Pop still looking to keep Duncan perky for the playoffs, they also have six more back-to-back game situations, and are 3-6 during this short-rest predicament this season.
Despite Sunday's 113-110 triumph over Phoenix and last week's victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Spurs continue to struggle playing Pop-level defense. For the record, there's a lot more going wrong than Duncan's half-step-slower reaction on a hard show against the standard screen-and-roll play. One big issue is San Antonio's inability to line up a serious post defender alongside their Hall-of-Famer in a conference loaded with big dudes that can play.
Sure, Blair is a good rebounder and has the girth to root out certain players on the block. But he checks in at a generous 6-foot-7, a length that -- no matter how much junk he has in the trunk -- can't prevent turn-and-shoot opportunities for the likes of Pau Gasol, Kenyon Martin, Carlos Boozer and perimeter-based Dirk Nowitzki. One guy he shares time with -- veteran Antonio McDyess -- prefers facing the hoop and squeezing off jumpers to defending with gusto in the paint. A Spurs employee with enough length and bounce to take on some of the aforementioned post enemies is 23-year-old Ian Mahinmi, a D-League prospect who was on the inactive list while Stoudemire was giving the Spurs 41 points. More seasoning is required before the coach trusts this kid in his rotation.
Beyond the post-defense issue is San Antonio's seeming lack of passion to guard the opposition. Although the numbers list their defensive efficiency at 104.9 points per 100 possessions compared to 104.3 last season, the statistic is relative to what's going with other teams in the league. The Spurs were fifth in defensive efficiency last season, but just 12th right now.
Perhaps they'll receive a dialed-up defensive effort from Jefferson, who arrived in the NBA eight years ago as a tremendous athlete with strength, lateral quickness and a history of shutting down wing operators. RJ was sort of forced to develop a defensive attitude in those days because he play college basketball at Arizona with the likes of unequal-opportunity scorers named Gilbert Arenas, Jason Gardner and Michael Wright. But as the years progressed and Jefferson's offensive game developed against the limited-help situations and offensive-oriented rules of the NBA, Richard became less inclined to sweat it up on D. Hey, it pays more to score.
And now, working the floor with such highly accomplished teammates, his opportunities to score are diminished by rank and a Popovich pace that often limits fast-break options to a one-man effort from Parker. Parker, it should be noted, has experienced ankle-related slippage (about six fewer points per game) that helps explain the Spurs' situation.
With Jefferson attempting to hit his stride at small forward, San Antonio also has issues at shooting guard, where Ginobili is used as sixth man behind the likes of marginal Keith Bogans or aging Michael Finley. Another Spur on the depth chart is Roger Mason Jr., who was quite a find, from a hired-gun standpoint last season, but his challenges on defense have inspired Pop to remove a great deal of his workload this season. This has created more minutes for Hill at the two and invited teams with big shooting guards to take him into the post.
Even if their assembled pieces begin to play a winning tune for the rest of the regular season, the Spurs would need a nice rally to avoid Denver or Dallas in the opening round of the playoffs. The Nuggets seem to have too much for San Antonio to overcome, especially as a lower seed, and the Mavericks' pre-deadline trade makes them more formidable than they've been since blowing that Finals series against Miami.
So while common sense prevents anyone from sticking a fork in a team that features Tim Duncan, the salad days seem to be long gone.