San Antonio Spurs 113, Philadelphia 76ers 91: The system abides

by

There are sporting events when magic happens, the unexpected occurs and you think this is why I spend so many hours watching sports. Then there are nights like Monday night in San Antonio, when the Spurs were riding a 13-game winning streak and welcomed the Philadelphia 76ers, losers of 24 straight contests.

Of course this game ended the way it did, with the Spurs sitting Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and Matt Bonner and cruising to a 113-91 win.

In and of itself, we learned nothing from this game, other than that Austin Daye can knock down some shots if afforded the appropriate space and/or minutes. Daye scored 22 points thanks in large part to hitting 6-for-10 from the 3-point line with little opposition from the guys in blue jerseys with red trim.

Tim Duncan added 19 points on 9-for-12 shooting and five rebounds. Kawhi Leonard scored 15 points and continues to take more control of proceedings on the offensive end of the floor, looking less like a young guy deferring to his older teammates and more like someone getting comfortable with being The Man for stretches.

So really, we learned nothing except that Gregg Popovich and the Spurs’ system is simply a platform for players to play to their strengths. San Antonio doesn’t ask anyone on the roster to be someone they’re not. At least not during games. They’ve asked plenty of players to tailor their skillsets for the better of the team—for all the criticism Richard Jefferson received for his tenure in San Antonio, the work he put in to successfully transform his game to a spot-up shooter was huge—but when the lights are on, the Spurs don’t put anyone on their roster in a position to fail.

On Monday night, that was on display. At the least a league-average 3-point shooter for his career (35 percent), Daye found a plethora of open shots on the night, which he was able to convert at a high clip. Meanwhile, he had just enough working knowledge of the finer points of the Spurs system to contribute in other areas.

But for all of the difficulty players have in picking up the Spurs system—and Daye said as much after the game, telling Andrew Monaco that he had to make things up as he went along—one thing it allows is for players to rely on their basketball instincts.

One thing you won’t find if you go up and down the Spurs roster is a dumb basketball player. These are all high basketball IQ guys who, more often than not, will make the right play left to their own devices. For all the complexity of San Antonio’s system, it seems to allow players, and maybe even rely on them, making the right play based on their instincts.

Watching the ball zip from player to player is not only beautiful to watch, but it’s sure as hell not how a play is drawn up. There is a framework for what is supposed to happen and the Spurs read and react from there.

That’s how Marco Belinelli can score 15 points off the bench on Saturday night against the Warriors and then, two nights later, a seldom-used player picked up in the most yawn-inspiring trade of the season can take their turn and lead the Spurs with 22. San Antonio’s system is built on contributions from Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, but doesn’t rely on them.

What’s more necessary are smart basketball players willing to be unselfish and smart enough to turn a play from “good to great,” one of Gregg Popovich’s pet phrases. Philadelphia doesn’t have that system, that culture yet. The Spurs do, obviously, and it’s a big reason they have their longest regular season winning streak since Gregg Popovich took his place on San Antonio’s bench.