San Antonio Spurs 106, Orlando Magic 97: the Popovich plan
AT&T CENTER — Suffocating defense in the last five minutes? Check. Timely 3-pointers? Check. Sprinkle in a little Manu Ginobili in at the end for good measure and this victory over the Orlando Magic looks oddly familiar yet so, so, different.
Several years ago, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich started transitioning the team, making contingency plans for Tim Duncan’s eventual decline. Gone were the days of playing 4-on-5, or 3-0n-5 on offense for the sake of keeping an extra defensive player or two on the court.
Perhaps knowing that at some point Duncan would no longer be able to compensate for their offensive deficiencies for 35+ minutes a night throughout the season, and eventually that lack of offense would put too much pressure on the defense, Popovich started making changes.
It began with the reduced role of Bruce Bowen, opting instead to start the declining offensive talents of Michael Finley and keeping five players with offensive capabilities on the court at all times. Throughout was the dedication to floor spacing big man Matt Bonner. Trading for Richard Jefferson. And the final piece was to have begun last season, handing the keys to the offense to point guard Tony Parker.
The fruition of these plans were delayed, mostly by injury, but Popovich and the Spurs have always been more about the process, knowing that results would eventually follow. Last night, the Spurs showed a glimpse of what might be Popovich’s masterstroke–rebuilding around an aging Tim Duncan. Last night, each of those moves paid off.
As Timothy Varner pointed out, Duncan totaled only 28 minutes against a team that featured a dominant big man in Dwight Howard. In the first half, the San Antonio Spurs failed to get a single point out of the post, either via Duncan, free throws, or a kick-out to an open shooter, opting instead for a steady diet of pick-and-rolls, fast break opportunities, and isolations for Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. And yet the Spurs prevailed.
This is not to rush Duncan into retirement by any means, or to transition him completely into defensive anchor and offensive afterthought the way David Robinson once did — though Duncan was brilliant in this last night, staying active, coming up with three steals, two blocks, and a number of other deflections and altered shots.
Instead, this was a display of the Spurs might, even when Duncan is not doing the heavy lifting. The defense has yet to come together completely, and right now, while they have not completely abandoned their stay-at-home defensive principles, the Spurs have adapted to their opponents increased field goal percentage by getting their hands in the lane, getting deflections, creating turnovers.
But that offense, that offense is a thing of beauty. It starts with the backcourt, which is the best in the NBA and led by Tony Parker, who Chris Paul be damned, is playing as well if not better than any point guard in a league increasingly dominated by them (24 points, 10 assists, and another near perfect balancing act between the two).
Ginobili still remains the closer, mostly due to the fact that he is the primary option to drawing fouls or pulling up for a 3-pointer as he did last night.
If there is any separation between these two elite teams, it’s that the Spurs backcourt generates layups, free throws, and assists while the Magic guards, they generate pull-up jumpers off the dribble or curls. Which can make them look extremely dangerous when the shots are dropping, but inconsistent because ultimately shots don’t always drop — even for the best shooters.
Augmenting the dribble penetration of Ginobili and Parker is Matt Bonner, who might be proving the exception to the rule regarding shots not always dropping. Admittedly that last line was a bit of an embellishment, but 4-4 from three, 15 points, and a team-high 36 minutes of plus/minus goodness.
Second in minutes was Richard Jefferson, who proved again that not all 2-7 nights are not created equal, playing aggressive defense, drawing fouls, and hitting two huge 3-pointers, one from the baseline in the closing minutes in typical Spurs small forward fashion.
With the Spurs off to their best start ever, having passed their biggest test to date, the question becomes: How good can this team be? The Los Angeles Lakers still remain the measuring stick, with all that length supplementing a league-leading offense in a way that the Spurs frontline rotation will only be able to match if Tiago Splitter develops just right.
But again, that offense, that offense has the potential to be so much more than the Lakers. Because it’s not clicking on all cylinders yet, hard as it is to believe. The Spurs have a roster perhaps matched only by Boston in it’s ability to create offense from every position on the court.
Preventing it from peaking is the missing post presence of Tim Duncan. Again, in keeping with the process, the footwork, drives, and looks have been stellar. There have been opportunities. Shots simply have not dropped. And when they do?
In championship years, in moments before celebration, there was often an opposing player in the closing seconds, smothered, suffocated, and cut off from anything resembling a good look. Last night, watching Jameer Nelson hounded, 3-pointers cut off until eventually forced into a turnover, it all looked oddly familiar. Even if it was so, so, different.