In a battle for tempo, execution wins out
AT&T CENTER—Having long ago abandoned the post-centric offenses that defined their rivalry, the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets met Friday night as the two fastest paced teams in the NBA in the Spurs 122-116 victory.
Now featuring a heavy dose of spread pick and roll sets, the Spurs and Rockets seek comfort in tempo, albeit for different reasons.
The San Antonio Spurs quicken their pace to avoid grinding out possessions against quicker, more athletic teams while the Houston Rockets utilize their quicker, more athletic legs to avoid being drawn into a contest of execution against more experienced hands.
“We’re really young, so to say that we’re going to execute play after play after play, that ain’t happening,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale admitted before the game. “So we’re going to go out and play with pace and good spacing.”
Pace is something the Rockets rarely struggle with, what with the burgeoning talents of Jeremy Lin and James Harden in the backcourt. Spacing, however, remains a work in progress.
“Everyone is learning how to stay out of each other’s way enough and helping the next guy with spacing,” McHale said. “Passing is one thing, but sharing the space on the court is every bit as important as sharing the ball. There are times we get a little jumbled up in our spacing.”
In a game played at breakneck speeds it was in the few moments the game slowed enough to necessitate orchestrated sets that McHale’s words proved prophetic.
They were small moments, mind you. Events like Chandler Parsons bringing Kawhi Leonard close enough to the ball handler that Leonard was able to take a swipe at Jeremy Lin just as he turned his head for a steal and breakaway dunk.
But they’re moments the Spurs rarely have. What the Spurs role players lack in dynamic playmaking they make up for with a dynamic sense of spacing, moving in concert to stretch a defense to its limits and therefore making passes simple.
In the Spurs 41-point first quarter Danny Green did a masterful job of sneaking into open spaces, working against James Harden’s field of vision the moment he turned his sights on Tony Parker’s dribble penetration for four first quarter three-pointers.
In moving the ball side-to-side the San Antonio Spurs scored seemingly at will. By getting the ball up and down the court, the Houston Rockets nearly matched them.
“It was very up-tempo tonight,” Spurs point guard Tony Parker said. “There was a point where we knew we would have to get stops to win the game and we made them in the fourth quarter.”
With a lineup of Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson, Manu Ginobili, and Patty Mills, combined with foul trouble for Harden, the Spurs found a combination of players able to slow the Rockets vaunted running game.
“We got a group out there that did an excellent job of both sprinting back in transition, showing a crowd in a full-court shell, and getting guys off the three-point line,” Popovich said. “That group got us on track and we got stops.”
Slowed just enough to catch, the Rockets committed seven of their 24 turnovers in a fourth quarter the Spurs began on a 20-7 run.
As Harden or Lin penetrated off the bounce their teammates failed to move to maintain proper spacing, allowing them to drive into a gaggle of defenders and affording Stephen Jackson the opportunity to trap the ball handler and Ginobili and Mills the chance to blitz their dribble for key fourth quarter steals.
These miscues, these breaks in the pace, afforded the Spurs enough cushion to withstand any further Rockets runs.
“It was fast, especially late in the fourth when they really started to push the ball and we just could not keep up,” Ginobili said. “That is the way they have been scoring. But in a five-on-five set it’s harder for them to score.”
Pace is important, but ultimately execution matters.