More on the Spurs’ late game execution in Houston

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While I’ve been of the opinion that going away from Tony Parker late in last night’s loss to the Houston Rockets was a mistake, TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott wrote today that the move wasn’t without its logic, despite the result.

The previous Spurs possession had, somehow, gone even worse. Up one with seconds left in the game, the Spurs had worked the ball all over the place to find Leonard for a corner 3, of all things. This was a head-scratcher, to conventional thinking: Two points would have nearly guaranteed victory, and Leonard’s only points of the second half had been roughly an hour earlier in real time, mere seconds after halftime.

This baby was a line drive that beat up the side of the backboard, and the Spurs’ hopes.

Who knows what Popovich was thinking?

In fact, it’s not that hard to know. It’s the same thing every play, more or less. He’s looking for shots that have proved to be efficient over the long haul. With emphasis on the long haul, as opposed to over the last few minutes of play.

Pop explains this again and again, but people tend not to be curious. It does sound more than a little cardboard.

Usually that means open shots. In practical terms, calling a play for an uncontested shot (from the guy the defense chose to leave open) is the opposite of calling the play most coaches would seek, for big-name players like Harden or Parker, who are never left open.

Like Henry, I loathe the hero ball coaching strategy we often see late in NBA games. Coaches have tons of plays to draw from and yet, when they game is on the line, they typically elect to get the ball to their best player and let that player find a shot. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s not very efficient.

The thing that rubs me the wrong way about how things went down Sunday night in Houston is that Parker wasn’t involved at all on those last two possessions. Pop has plenty of plays to chose from for his players. If you ever catch him during a game pulling some note cards out of his jacket pocket, those have plays designed to get specific players shots and he’ll go to those cards when he wants to get someone involved.

With 4.5 seconds left, San Antonio’s options were severely limited by the plays that could be drawn up to get a bucket. But that one possession, where Parker barely touched the ball, if he had it at all, still makes me cringe.

I’m sure the Spurs have all but moved on, it’s just people like us who are sitting here still talking about it. It didn’t go down how I would’ve liked, but Henry closes his post with what should ease any sort of uncertainties Spurs fans may have after Sunday night.

But I’m reminded of something a very smart stat geek told me once: The more they dig into the data, the more they find that Popovich does almost everything the right way. The two-for-one, the substitutions, the play calling, his tactical errors are few and far between, which is a big part of why Spurs wins can be greeted with shrugs — it’s a team that operates with machine-like efficiency. That efficiency isn’t despite unconventional play calls, though. It’s because of them, which isn’t really food for thought in San Antonio, but it might be for 29 other teams.

Why is Popovich so rare in getting these things so right?

  • http://twitter.com/SpursBorg DaTrillSpursBlog

    Someone mentioned that the last play was the same one the Spurs used twice against Warriors.

  • ProjectGSX

    My problem with that play was Tim’s pass out of the post. He threw this ridiculous looping pass to Manu who had to sit and wait for it, which allowed the defense to rotate. KL was not nearly as open as he should have been. Tim also blew that stupid runner in the paint the possession before. I love that man, but he has got to get his head straight if we are going anywhere in the playoffs.

  • http://twitter.com/SICKWITITairg SICK-WIT-IT

    If the refs had not been calling phantom fouls, and if they would have
    got that “jump ball” call right (the ball went out-of-bounds off Asik’s
    hand), maybe K.Leonard and the entire Spurs team could have felt like they could lock down
    on defense. To me, they knew Harden was UNTOUCHABLE during the Rockets final possession & if Kawhi would have gone up with him, they would have called a foul.

  • Sir Timothy

    No big deal, Season series Spurs 3 – Houston 1.

    Did you see that guy goal tend and the actually land on top of Danny Green? How is that not a foul? If you touch a jump shooter it is a foul but you can disable a guy who is driving to the hoop??? Refs wanted this one for Houston and they go it. Like I said no big deal.

  • http://profiles.google.com/lordxar Ray Briggs II

    I am not going to get too worked up over one road loss to a pretty good Rockets team. But in general lately I feel like the Spurs offense has been sluggish. Maybe getting Tony back for a few games will fix it but Manu doesn’t look like his old self and more and more I feel we are going to be dependent on Kawhi giving us 10-14 a game.
    The Spurs have just looked very beatable over the last month.

  • Tyler

    Isn’t that to be expected though? There’s a huge difference between TP and Cory Joseph running the show. Look at how many easy buckets the Spurs get when TP isn’t out there. It’s not many, and that just puts more pressure on everyone else. Based on the load TP is asked to carry each night, I’m pretty happy with 9-4 in his absence.