Ginobili helps Spurs keep their rhythm against Pistons
AT&T CENTER—Stylistically, San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili has always succeeded by operating outside the rhythm of the game. His pace, and ability to manipulate it, walks that thin line between awkward and unconventional. Defending it can be impossible.
But as Ginobili works outside basketball’s metronome, he remains eerily in tune with it.
Coming off a steal in the second quarter of the Spurs 114-75 win over the Detroit Pistons, Ginobili brought the ball up at a measured pace while monitoring the steps of every player around him, mapping out defenders and teammates on the court. As he made the briefest of eye contact with Kawhi Leonard, communicating his intent, he also calculated the strides of Leonard and the Pistons’ Rodney Stuckey running side-by-side in transition.
There would be only the briefest of moments between the time Leonard gained a step on his defender and the time he would run out of real estate on the court. There would be one step, maybe two, but only a fraction of a second really to make the pass.
As Ginobili raised the ball over his head to fire his two-handed half court rocket pass, Leonard was hardly open. But Ginobili’s calculations, which lie somewhere between artistry and math, proved true and the pass found its mark in the exact moment Leonard needed to gather for the dunk. Two points made easy on a play anything but.
“I told him, through an eye signal, to go cut,” Ginobili said. “I know that he likes doing it. He’s explosive, he has great hands, and we are starting to find each other in those kinds of situations.”
The San Antonio Spurs offense didn’t start the game with such precision. With Cory Joseph starting in place of the injured Parker the Spurs began the game with all the grace of a wounded duck playing on a sprained ankle, shooting 5-for-12 with two turnovers before Ginobili came in and hit his first six shots.
“We started a little slow, we were figuring out how to operate without [Parker],” Tim Duncan said. “The lineups, who and when to attack, how to run plays, all that stuff.”
A lengthy playoff run still depends on the availability of their elite playmaking point guard, especially as defenses have time to dissect and hone in on what actions teams like to run, but over a long stretch of the regular season these Spurs can maintain high levels of play just on how simplistic they approach the game.
Basketball at a fundamental level is an easy game. You move bodies and ball until the defense finds itself in a compromised enough position to attack for an easy shot. While the concepts are easy to grasp, the execution does take work and discipline.
The Spurs system isn’t just comprised of a vast set of plays superior to other coaches’ playbooks. It’s based on meticulous attention to detail. It’s setting screens at the right time at the correct angles, repeating these actions through hours of practice to commit it to muscle memory. It’s sacrificing the first open shot for the best available shot, moving from good to great.
“That’s who we have to be if we want to go to the playoffs and advance,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “We’re not a one-on-one team, it’s just not who we are. We don’t have that type of player. We’ve got a good team and ball movement and when we do that well we’re at our best.”
For two games now the Spurs have operated at their peak, following a 41-assist effort against the Sacramento Kings with 35 assists against the Detroit Pistons.
The Spurs found open shots by pushing the pace off their reborn defense, holding the Pistons to 32.6 percent shooting and forcing 19 turnovers to only 17 assists. They set Duncan (16 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, and five blocks) at the top of the key, threading passes to cutters along the baseline. They ran pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll with Ginobili that would be described as textbook if only it were possible to teach what Ginobili does.
“You know what’s coming, but we couldn’t stop it,” Pistons coach Lawrence Frank said. “Look, they’re the best team in the league, we know that. They got a lot of easy baskets.”
By the Detroit Pistons coaching staff’s calculations, the Spurs scored 54 “system” points—that is baskets scored via a team’s offensive framework rather than individual efforts.
“These are things you prepare for and try to take away,” Frank said. “You’re not going to gain all of them. They have good enough players as it is [without] giving the amount of easy baskets we gave.”
Yes, basketball can be easy. But set a gifted basketball mind like Ginobili’s to execute some basic principles and with nothing but a quick glance between teammates, basketball can be a thing of beauty too.