A different kind of Hell

by

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.

  • Dave McNulla

    That is beautiful. I almost felt a tear forming in in my eye as Shook Ones plays in the back of my mind.

  • Vermont Spurs Fan

    You mean a different kind of heaven. 

    This may become my favorite Spurs team of all before it is all over…I have not missed a game this year (thank you League Pass!) 

    Although it is hard not to choose the guys from ’99 with the Admiral’s tears of joy, or maybe the majesty of Duncan in 2003, or the Ginobili show in 2005, or perhaps the sweep of LeBron in 2007. I am just saying that this is something new and something fun to watch! 20 in a row???

  • Andrew

    Their defense has been pretty amazing as well.  They look like the team to beat.

  • GFoyle

    Couple of things I’m wondering about in the afterglow:
    (1) What made Jack mad enough to get a technical a the end of the 3rd quarter, and what did he say to get T’d up?
    (2) Just before an OKC inbound pass on their side of the court in the 2nd quarter, Gary Neal picked up a small object, which looked to me like a player’s mouthguard, that had fallen on the court inside the circle and tossed it into the crowd. (Neal’s action reminded me of Wade throwing Bibby’s shoe earlier in the playoffs.) Does anyone actually know what that object was? 

  • mike

     (1) Jack got T’ed up for jawing at Serge. Timmy was upset about something and stayed by the OKC bench after the buzzer rang. Jack went over to get his back and ended up with the T.

  • Ton the Beat Counselor

    Thank you for writing this, Jesse. I have been at a lost to deacribe what we witnessed In that third quarter yesterday. I was absolutely speechless. This piece encapsulates it perfectly. It was a trancendant moment that went beyond basketball team fandom.

  • idahospur

    This team is smooth. Watching Parker light up the Thunder defense with the spin jump shot or waiting a moment before taking that 3.

  • Agutierrez

    Marvelous encapsulation of how the Spurs operate. They minimize the unexpected, the unplanned. Every move, even by players seemingly uninvolved in the play, has a purpose, if nothing else, to create space. The worse part for the Thunder must be that on the plane ride home surely they are each confronting a very discomfiting reality: this is how we are built, for our Big Three to score 88 points and shoot light out, we played our game and still lost by 9. Can we really play any better than this? When the best you can come up with is “at least we’re going home,” you’ve got problems. How do they adjust, ask the Big Three to score 100? The rest of their roster is not built for scoring. Our “system” involved ten players, theirs involves three. Therein lies the rub

  • Bcfan93

    Im not that confident heading into game 3. there were a few stretches during the start of 4th quarter where okc switched on pick and rolls with the small ball line up. That kind of slowed down the spurs and for the first time, i felt like they were struggling to get a basket. they missed 12 of 15 shots and ginobili made a crazy lucky shot during the 4th. if they did that earlier in the game, i think the results wouldve been different

  • Riggies

     Not confident is a good way to be at this point.  As Pop said, “its not supposed to be easy.”  Stay focused on game 3.  The Spurs know that the Thunder CANNOT lose game 3 and will stay the ship even if they go down double digits in the first half.  They slowed the Spurs down in both game 1 AND 2 for stretches but still lost.  What does that tell you about the Spurs?   The WHOLE game isn’t and shouldn’t be that easy and there will be times “when the Spurs struggle to get a basket” and that is because Thunder are a great team!

  • Guth

    If you go back and watch that play again, listen to Timmy yelling “corner, corner” as he springs Green for the three. Boris wisely listened, made the pass, and Danny made the shot. Just beautiful team basketball.

  • Vermont Spurs Fan

    Not that confident?? You mean about a sweep? I am pretty confident that we will not lose 4 out of the next 5. That is what matters! 

    Do they have T-shirts that say “In Pop we Trust?” I would like to one of those.

  • Latin_D

    Great stuff, Jesse. Thanks for writing and sharing.

  • ThatBigGuy

     Don’t forget that Pop and his staff now have 48 hours to watch tape and plan for that small ball switching. Switching all screens is a great surprise attack, because you don’t see it very often, and it creates chaos. But a well coached TEAM will survive the onslaught and take advantage of the switches. Also, this is a new defensive scheme for the Thunder as well. Are they disciplined enough to not make mistakes while scrambling to switch 2 ball screens and another pair of off ball screens for an entire 24 seconds?

    Last night’s effort by the Thunder was the best they can muster: they mucked up our offense with the Hack-A-Splitter, then threw out a chaotic switch all screen defense. That’s a huge difference in game pace, yet the Spurs handled it and pulled out the win.