A different kind of Hell
AT&T CENTER–Alone in the corner, shooting arm extended and displaying classic textbook form on his followthrough, Spurs guard Danny Green stood still and admired his three-pointer settling softly into the bottom of the net.
In a third quarter run in which the San Antonio Spurs orchestrated a harmonious symphony of synchronized movement and passing, Green’s statuesque pose was perhaps the lone moment a member of his team could be caught at a standstill. And who could blame Green for stopping to smell the roses? The execution on the play leading to his three-pointer was the sort of perfection coaches dare not even dream about.
A little over two minutes into the third quarter Boris Diaw zips a long outlet pass to Parker, quickly getting the Spurs into a side pick and roll between the two with Green and Kawhi Leonard on the opposite corner and Tim Duncan trailing the action as a release valve. With surgical precision the Spurs quickly move the ball side-to-side, sending the defense into frantic rotations.
As Leonard drives baseline on a hard closeout, Diaw matches his every step towards the rim with a step back toward the top of the key, maintaining perfect spacing and creating another long rotation point for the defense to deal with. At the exact moment Leonard threads a bounce pass to Diaw, Duncan is setting a pick for Green in the weak side. The timing is such that Diaw delivers the pass to Green just as he is freed in the corner for the three-pointer. All five players touch the ball on the possession.
“Sometimes it’s exactly as we drew it up, and other times it’s a miracle, and that’s the truth,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said of his team’s offensive execution. “It doesn’t always go exactly the way you planned, but good players get it done.”
In Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals the San Antonio Spurs relied on equal parts execution and individual brilliance in displaying some of the finest offense the basketball world has ever seen. And that’s not hyperbole.
It was at once shocking and joyous to watch in the third quarter as the Spurs reached basketball nirvana, a transcendent state beyond suffering and sense of self. Nine of their 11 baskets in the third quarter were assisted on as the Spurs hit 11-17 from the field and 5-8 from behind the three-point line.
“They are a very good passing team and a good three-point shooting team,” Thunder guard James Harden said. “When you have that combination, it’s tough to guard.”
The Spurs winning streak now stands at 20 games and almost 50 days. Their so far undefeated romp through the playoffs is making a mockery of the notion that offensive teams cannot thrive in the playoffs; their offense proving to be every bit as suffocating as their defense once was in its prime.
Hell, it turns out, is a surprisingly malleable concept.
For most of the past decade Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich offered a very conventional perspective of Hell, forcing lost souls to navigate a maze of long arms clutching and clawing at their very beings, more often than not ripping them to shreds.
Every once in a while, if the Spurs were in a particularly devious mood, the fire pits would subside just enough to tease a sliver of light, only to turn the frantic away at the last second with a seven-foot gate keeper.
It was a style South Texas, with its infinite supply of 100-plus degree days, embraced wholeheartedly. Hell, it was a style we proudly branded our blog with.
Sadly, to the dismay of Popovich and his cult, the fire dimmed, the pitchforks dulled, and Tim Duncan grew a little long in the tooth. Hell hadn’t frozen over, but its inhabitants were certainly enjoying a cool breeze.
Enter Popovich and a few renovations.
If the Spurs could no longer bring their opponent’s biggest fears to light, they would bury them under their greatest vices. And few vices are as tempting to basketball players as tempo and open space. These San Antonio Spurs can suffocate and discomfort opponents just as successfully as they did with their defense, but they do so with entirely different tactics.
Where the Spurs once rounded up opponents like cattle being led to slaughter, they now deceive opponents with open pastures.
If the AT&T Center’s guests wanted a reprieve from claustrophobia-inducing defenses, Popovich would offer all the open space they wanted—on his own terms, naturally.
The Spurs no longer pound opponents, but spread them out with a barrage of three-point shooting and ball movement. The open space the Spurs provide plays at freedom, but serves to isolate. The small lineups and quick tempo that Thunder head coach Scott Brooks has employed have so far all played into the Spurs hands.
In the end, intentionally fouling Tiago Splitter–a tactic Brooks said he has never used before–was all the Thunder could do to slow the Spurs momentum.
“That’s what they do. They spread you out, they put some tough decisions on the floor that you have to guard their bigs rolling and you’ve got to protect their 40 percent three-point shooter,” Brooks said. “They pass the ball well. Very rarely do they take one extra dribble. If a man is open, they pass. It’s good basketball.”
For a moment it was perfect basketball, and like Green we should all stop and admire its work.