Spurs clinch top seed as defensive adjustments baffle Suns
It’s official now. With only two games remaining in the marathon that is the NBA season, the Spurs have locked up the top overall seed in the league and home-court advantage throughout the postseason; and they did so by blitzing back against the hectic Phoenix Suns, one of three possible first-round playoff opponents, to take the 112-104 win at the AT&T Center.
Speaking of those three potential roadblocks, the Spurs have defeated all of them (Memphis, Dallas and Phoenix) in the last week, helping intensify what has become a remarkable race for the final two spots in the Western Conference. And what makes it all the more entertaining, each one of those teams plays the other two once over the final days of the season in a little round-robin of sorts. With 32 losses apiece, regular-season survival will come by the slimmest of margins for two of the three dogs in the fight.
On Friday, one of those three dogs showed why it would likely be the most difficult for San Antonio to handle come playoff time.
There still remains a rivalrous aura surrounding Spurs-Grizzlies and Spurs-Mavs, considering the 2011 postseason ouster at the hands of Memphis and the longstanding I-35 rivalry against Dirk Nowitzki and Dallas. But the dedicated NBA viewer knows there isn’t much animosity from either side of the two matchups, primarily because the Grizzlies and Mavs have no shot to beat the Spurs in a postseason meeting.
San Antonio has won an incredible 17 consecutive games against the two teams (eight straight against Memphis, nine consecutive against Dallas), and only a handful of the games have actually been close. The Spurs have suffocated Zach Randolph and made life exceedingly difficult for the great Nowitzki, essentially draining the lifeblood that makes each of these opponents so successful.
But there’s a different feeling against the Suns, one of relative uncertainty considering the unexpected run Phoenix has dropped on the league and sustained all the way up to this point. Their running, gunning, frenetic pace is right there with Mike D’Antoni’s ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ attack in terms of speed, and the two-headed monster at point guard can rack up points in a hurry if you’re not ready to roll once you hit the court. The Spurs were shown another example of that on Friday night.
While there is an inarguable method to the Suns’ madness, it’s the chaos after the fact that can be unpredictable. We know that (Hubie Brown voice) Phoenix wants to run you out of the gym, launch 25 threes a night and score a league-leading 18.7 fast-break points per game; but when the sets break down, they have the athleticism and backcourt scoring ability to put up points when nothing is there.
So how do you rein them in? Against the Suns, you must control the chaos, which is something the Spurs have been exceedingly successful in doing against most of their high-speed opponents during the Gregg Popovich era. What happened on Friday was a wonderful example of the two different ends of the spectrum. Phoenix played its unique brand of basketball in the first half; in the second, San Antonio played its own version.
Of course, this wasn’t the battle we’d likely see if these two sides meet in the postseason. The Suns were without their leading scorer Goran Dragic, who was nursing a sprained ankle, and the Spurs were resting Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili after a busy Thursday in Dallas. Clearly these absences affected the game, but not necessarily the way it was played. No Dragic just means a ton of Eric Bledsoe, and we’ve seen time and time again how the cracks are filled when San Antonio’s stars sit.
And surprise, surprise: Phoenix tried to roast the Spurs right out of the blocks and take advantage of the fact the Western Conference leaders were playing on the second night of a back-to-back. For a while there, it looked like they might. The home team came out flat; the visitors were anything but.
Phoenix shot 70 percent from the floor in the first quarter, while the Spurs couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn prior to a 7-0 run to end the frame. San Antonio hit 33 percent of its shots through the opening 12 minutes and was able to cut an early 21-point deficit down to 13 at the break, thanks mostly to a blistering Danny Green. His 19 first-half points and 70-percent shooting were the only reasons the Spurs managed to hit 40 percent of their shots during that time.
The Suns’ thermonuclear pace settled down, as did their otherworldly shooting percentage. But for those minds who believe this team could give the Spurs a serious run for their money in the postseason, it was evidence to further support their theory.
There are a few things you must do when playing against Phoenix: take care of the ball, be constantly aware and active in transition defense, be patient offensively and simply hit shots. The Spurs didn’t turn the ball over, but they sure as hell didn’t shoot well. And because of that, the Suns were constantly working in the open court off defensive rebounds, and their speed seemed to overwhelm a somewhat slow-footed San Antonio team in transition.
Sometimes it’s as basic as hitting shots, which prevents a team from grabbing the rebound and flying down the floor. But this went beyond that. Even when the Spurs managed to get back successfully, their scheme was being ripped apart.
Defensively, San Antonio honors two tenets above all others: run shooters off the 3-point line and protect the rim. Much of this has to do with the percentages and overall value of said shots, but it also has to do with the Spurs’ general lack of frontcourt mobility, *especially when Duncan and Splitter are playing together.
*For what it’s worth, if the Spurs play the Suns in the playoffs, it’s likely we’ll see smaller lineups from Popovich. It’s just going to be too difficult to run against Phoenix with Duncan and Splitter on the floor together.
San Antonio typically runs its perimeter defenders over the top of ball-screens to protect against pull-up shots from the arc, and it drops its bigs back toward the rim in an effort to deter penetration toward the rim and encourage mid-range jumpers. But without Dragic in the Phoenix lineup, an excellent 3-point shooter, the Spurs used a different strategy against Bledsoe.
The Suns’ bulldog point guard is a monster despite his six-foot frame. He’s built like a tank and wreaks havoc if you let him in the paint, but he’s struggled from deep for the majority of his career. In the first half on Friday, the Spurs elected to go under nearly every screen when Bledsoe initiated pick-and-rolls, and they did so without hedging at all. They also paid for it.
Bledsoe went for 19 points, six rebounds and five assists in the first half, hitting 7-of-9 from the floor during that timeframe. And really, it’s because his life was too easy over the first 24 minutes. The Phoenix point guard is nightmarish enough for San Antonio when his perimeter shot isn’t going, but when it is it’s normally lights out.
You can’t blame Popovich for choosing to take the chance of working under screens against Bledsoe, as perimeter shooting is one of his few weaknesses. But as he gained momentum, the Spurs were being buried deeper and deeper off the pick-and-roll, and Bledsoe got hot.
Phoenix shot better than 58 percent from the floor in the first half, and ball-handlers went 5-of-9 from the floor in pick-and-roll situations during that time, per Synergy. And when they weren’t hitting shots from the perimeter, they were destroying San Antonio’s Duncan-less defensive interior.
Just look at all the green. In particular, the numbers right around the basket. Well hell, everywhere, really.
But the Spurs made a simple change at the half that proved to make a significant difference.
“I thought second half we played better defense. We controlled the pick-and-roll a little bit better,” Tony Parker said at the end of the night. “First half, we went under (screens) and Bledsoe knocked down a lot of shots, and Green, too. So second half we changed our pick-and-roll defense and did a lot better controlling that.
“And we made more shots. We were able to get in transition and get some easy baskets and get our confidence going.”
Not only did San Antonio start chasing Bledsoe over the top of those picks, they began to hedge when they elected to go under against other players. They also utilized Jeff Ayres quite a bit in the second half, a guy who’s been lost in the shuffle over the last couple of months.
Ayres is a much more athletic big man than any other the Spurs have on their roster, something that came in handy against the Suns’ attack. Rather than sagging off, he’s able to put pressure on the ball-handler until his defender recovers. It’s one reason I believe we’re going to get a game or two during the postseason where Ayres comes in and makes an unexpected impact.
San Antonio showed during the 2012-13 postseason it can go away from its normal tendencies in the second round against the Warriors, and it exhibited that capability once more on Friday. Again, the Spurs don’t typically jump out or hedge on ball-handlers like they did last night, but they made it work quite well.
After scorching the nets in the first half, the Suns managed to shoot only 36 percent in the second. They weren’t just missing shots where they were making them before, either. San Antonio threw them completely out of whack, offensively.
Phoenix was running at a pace of 102.48 (pace is the number of possessions per 48 minutes) in the first half, which would easily lead the league if maintained over the course of a season; in the second, that number dropped to 96.92, a pace that would be good enough for 14th in the NBA. Obviously, you can’t take pace from a single game and extrapolate it over the course of an entire season, but it is interesting to note the drop in speed from one half to the next.
The Spurs massively disrupted the Suns’ flow, and because of that outscored them by 19 points in the second half. Ball-handlers hit just 2-of-6 shots out of pick-and-roll situations in the second half, and the second of the two came early in the fourth quarter. Over the final nine minutes, nada.
Remember the Suns’ first-half shot chart? Well…
And not only did the defense clamp down, but the offense came alive. Parker scored 14 of his 18 points in the third quarter, and *Green dropped a career-high 33 points on seven 3-pointers. The Spurs hit big shot after big shot when they mattered most, blitzing their way to a comeback win that secured home-court advantage all postseason long.
*As an aside, Danny was not just awesome as a shooter, but he was very aggressive off the dribble on mid-range pull-ups. We often laugh at Green’s ball-handling forays, but he’s absolutely improved in that capacity. He was confident in pick-and-rolls, and he was almost solely responsible for keeping things within striking distance in the first half. Honestly, I thought it might have been the best game I’ve ever seen him play.
I must reiterate: the Suns are a different kind of danger when Dragic is on the floor. Any living, breathing Spurs fan remembers what he did to their team during the 2010 Phoenix sweep of San Antonio in the postseason. Need a reminder?
But this isn’t the same Spurs team. This one, with Duncan and Ginobili back in the fold, obviously, is light years better than that one. Its experience, depth and overall basketball I.Q. is going to play a huge part come playoff time, and against the young Suns, San Antonio would have a definite advantage, both on the court and in the coach’s box.
Your guess is as good as mine as to which team will fall into that eighth seed, but the Spurs should be able to adjust accordingly to whichever one arrives in San Antonio in late April. Of the three, it’s the Suns that potentially pose the most troublesome matchup, but it’s nothing more than that.
If the Spurs are right, they’ll cruise through the first round. They know the sort of inherent danger that exists against young, fast, athletic teams that don’t seem to have an idea of the seriousness of the situation. But the playoffs are a totally different animal than the regular season, and while the Suns have exceeded expectations all year long, facing the NBA’s top team in a seven-game series would pose a challenge they’ve never experienced as a unit.
San Antonio gave them a taste of that on Friday.
Screenshots courtesy of NBA.com.