Identity Theft

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I think that as fans we want to view of sports in absolutes. Team A won because of this. Team B lost because of that. It was all because of one thing and nothing else had any effect on that. It would be nice if this were the case; it would make my task a lot easier. That’s unfortunately not how basketball works.

The Spurs lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals for a myriad of reasons, not all of them carrying over from game to game. San Antonio lost because Matt Bonner couldn’t get off a 3-pointer. Danny Green could, but he had trouble knocking them down. Kawhi Leonard had difficulty defending Kevin Durant because Leonard was only a rookie and Durant is the second best basketball player in the world. Those are just some obvious ones.

Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich has been hitting on something all training camp about that series, calling it identity theft. In essence, he feels like the Spurs stopped trusting each other offensively in the Western Conference Finals and that hurt the offense.

“There’s an identity theft that took place in that playoff,” Pop said on Media Day. “We played like the Spurs in the first couple of games. Oklahoma City, I believe, learned from that and they played like we did offensively, sharing the ball and trusting their teammates, and we lost our identity.

“So we want to make sure we understand that and get that back.”

Gregg Popovich knows his offense better than anyone. If he says his offense looks broke, it probably is. Luckily, we do have some measurements available to judge the validity of his statements.

Thanks to sites like Basketball Reference, advanced box scores are available complete with team assist rate (percentage of field goals that were assisted on), which is one way to measure how much the Spurs trusted each other and moved the ball. In the first two games against the Thunder (both Spurs wins), San Antonio had an assist rate of 57.9 and 62.8. Oklahoma City, on the other hand, posted an assist rate of 51.4 in both games.

In Game 3, the Spurs posted an assist rate of 60, but the Thunder upped theirs to 57.5. San Antonio’s assist rate then dropped like a rock to 41.5 in Game 4 while OKC continued to increase its to 61.4. Game 5 saw the Spurs post a 67.6 assist rating to the Thunder’s 55 and Game 6 had San Antonio at 54.1 and OKC at 50.

The Spurs’ assist rate didn’t seem to correlate to the team’s offensive efficiency either (points per 100 possessions), as San Antonio’s 60 assist rating in Game 3 led to a 93 OffRtg (not good), and a 41.5 assist rating in Game 4 contributed to a 113.8 OffRtg.

This isn’t to say the numbers are all cut and dry. In fact, Pop might not have been referring to assisting at all. The Spurs offense is very reliant upon timing and movement. Any sort of hesitation in moving the ball can bog down the offense and negatively impact the bottom line, it’s really a very rhythm-based system. But the Spurs still managed to score well at least a couple of Games 3-6.

So maybe what Pop is getting at isn’t so much that the Spurs trusted each other less, but instead it’s the second part of that quote above, that the Thunder learned from the Spurs and began sharing the ball better. The numbers show that Oklahoma City’s assist rates in Games 3-6 were better than their assist rate in Games 1 and 2. We knew the Spurs were a fairly mediocre defensive team at the time, and when a team as talented as the Thunder started emulating the Spurs, well, that’s tough to stop.

And again, there are so many things that contribute to a loss and even more that have an effect on four losses in a row. We can’t simply say that Oklahoma City upped their assist rate and that’s why they won. It’s one piece in a very big puzzle, but when you’re talking about a series where the average margin of victory was 8.5 points, one or two baskets here and there have a huge effect on how each game plays out.

  • phillip mabry

    It’s true. And the four losses straight tell a different story. The number of people who have told me, “The Spurs got blown away those last four games,” is outrageous. Did they not watch the same series I watched? With the exception of game 3, every Spurs loss was a tight game. Anyone’s game down to the last minute.

    Or those folks that say, “The Spurs core is just too old, that’s why they lost those last four.” Of course, a quick look at the box score shows that our big three had appropriate games. Our role players didn’t step up…it’s okay – they got us further than my wildest dreams.

    My point being that San Antonio was much closer to facing off against Miami than most fans are willing to admit.

  • aespurs

    yeah it was identity theft and the thing that pissed me off was that once the spurs lost to the thunder i thought to myself “i hate that the spurs lost, but the thunder just grew up in a big way and now theyre unstoppable” and then they went to the playoffs and threw it all away by completely regressing back to their old ball hogging, dependent on three guys ways. it was a shame to see that the spurs were beat by a team that didnt actually learn, they just got on a streak

  • STIJL

    While this is true. I’d still like the Spurs to get in to the top 8 identity for defense.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Craig-Thomas/1541940034 Craig Thomas

    That is hogwash. As the data indicated, the Spurs losing had little to do with offensive issues. Sure, the offense sputtered from time to time, but that’s expected. It happens on every single NBA team that has ever played. The aberration was our horrible defense. Think to game 3 when Ibaka and Perkins decided “hey, if we’re wide open and the Spurs are daring us to shoot, why not shoot?” Then game 4 when Scott Brooks drew up the EXACT SAME play for Durant for what must have been 5 straight offensive possessions and we were unable to stop him in the 4th quarter. Similar defensive lapses on Harden or Durant characterized game 5/6 losses. As blasphemous as it sounds, the onus lies on Coach Pop in not putting his team in a position to win those last four games.

    Defense wins championships. How many times must it be said? If anything, the Spurs have suffered an identity theft of our defense. We cannot say: “well, you may be more athletic, and better defensively, but we’ll out-execute you on the court.” It just doesn’t happen over a 7-game series. As you saw with the Thunder, all it took was a simple double off the pick and roll and Tony was stumped. He couldn’t figure out how or where to pass to out of the double-team and ended up turning over the ball or bogging down the offense which lead to easy points. If we don’t improve defensively, we will not win a championship. We can mimic the Phoenix Suns all we want, but just like them, it won’t produce rings.

  • AS

    Officiating anyone?

  • Horatio

    While I agree for the most part with this assessment, what probably bothered me most was how OKC went on to the finals and the narrative we Spurs fans clung to fell apart. The notion that the Thunder, with pieces from the Spurs front office built a team of athletic young superstars on the blueprint of the best sports franchise in any pro league, took a punch and then transcended their ‘masters’….only to fall flat on their faces to the Miami LeBrons.

    Looking back, the 20 game winning streak into the playoffs was an amazing time in Spurs history, basketball perfection or as close as we would ever see. They did it with busted, old superstars, unproven rookies and spare parts.

    Well, the rookies are a year older, a few new faces have arrived but the bottom line is that Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili circa 2003 aren’t walking through that door.

    What does it mean? Eh, it means the Spurs will rack up another 50 win season and as so many have said, we’ll see what happens then.

    I believe that with his physical tools, Eddy Curry is a gamble the Spurs should take because on the upside, he gives the Spurs legitimate size off the bench that can score inside.

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  • Tyler
  • Titletown99030507d

    Bonner, Splitter, Blair, and Green for the most part didn’t exist in the OKC series and even parts of the other series for some of those four. But the one series that mattered of course is the one that sent them home. A loss is a loss is a loss and those four didn’t play to their potential. Now the thing that we are going to see again is that same very group is going to be there again come come playoff time. Hopefully when that time comes again Bonner can jack up his 3 pointer with the opponent in his face, Splitter can be healthy and actually get some experience under his belt and become more aggressive on defense, and Blair play like his playing now, and Green needs to just show up this time around. Everyone else can just go about their usual selves and play. Oh yeah forgot the most important thing who’s going to stop KD? They have 7 months to figure that one out. Hope some 6’9 athletic, defensive minded, quick footed, shot blocking fool is waiting under a rock somewhere to be found. Either that be quick enough to get a double team on him and get back to your position in time to run some clock in hopes to rush a shot. Either way they have big task on their hands against OKC. That is if they meet up again. And I wish they would for some pay back..

  • Titletown99030507d

    Is there a bug going around? I knew that dude was toast when he opened his mouth. Hope he wasn’t from 48MOH. TOOOOOO funny?

  • phillip mabry

    Blair got almost no play time. I understand he poses some match-up problems, but to his defense he didn’t hardly see the floor that series. When he did – he rebounded like a boss.

    And if he really did develop a jumper….that’d be something special.

    What can I say about Bonner? He’s my favorite mediocre player in the NBA.

    I think Splitter has the potential to be that brick wall in the paint. Now he just needs to fit in to our offense and stay healthy.

  • Graham

    For once I completely agree. The guys are there that we need to get past OKC and even Miami, they just need to play to their potential and not go Section 8 on us during crunch time. We aren’t going to find the KD stopper or the LBJ stopper sitting around, I posit that that guy doesn’t even exist, Hell maybe this go around the Thunder won’t spontaneously drop their Hero Ball act that they are so fond of for the team play that got them past us, and who knows? Maybe the finals roll around and our offense exposes the chinks in the Heat ‘juggernaut’. All I’m saying is I’d really enjoy having this team come back with the same parts for the most part as last year and serving up a nice cold dish of revenge to the Thunder in the WCF, at the very least

  • Graham

    I know it’s completely ludicrous to count on at this point, and way WAY ahead of ourselves, but the thought of him playing at even 85% of his potential in, say a finals matchup with the heat absolutely DESTROYING their jokes of centers is at least a fun imagination.

    But hey, Duncan and Ginobilli know how to take care of themselves, their regression will be slow and gradual. Here’s to hoping Sophmore Kawhi and Green/Diaw/Mills/Joseph with a full year of development under their belt make The Leap(tm) and end up as that missing something we need to get us over that last hump.

    Hey, if we can roll off 60+ wins (ambitious, but not out of the question if we play the quality basketball we went into the playoffs playing.) and get the 1 seed (under the radar…………AGAIN {well, save for Hollinger}) and force the Lakers-Thunder to bloody each other up in the semis…….

  • Leben

    Well said.

  • Spurholic Mumbai

    At last a chance to vent the bottled frustration of the loss. Think, of the several reasons a few which stick out are Splitter being “shaqued”, Ibaka going bonkers, (Ibaka’s 6-6 rminds me of Euro Cup Final between Holland and Russia, think it was 1986 0r 82. During the first 2 minutes of the ga,me, The Dutch striver – Marco Van Basten got a diagonal lob from the midfield, from the edge of the box , not the penalty box, roughly at a 45 angle to the goal post, he let go a shot which went, sorry, like a tracer bullet, slammed into the goal, am sure if Van Basten was fed that type of pass for the rest of his life, he would not come close to the goal post, That goal shocked the Russians into a shell and Dutch won the Euro Cup), apologies for rambling, as I warned, the frustration… has just been unbottled.

    While, Coach Pop became famous for “I want nasty” comment during Q4 of game 1, it was the Thunder which turned nasty, starting with Splitter’s “hack a shaq”, which seems to not only unsettle the Brazilian as well as the coaching staff (yeah, Spurs won that game, but after giving up a large lead amidst a strong comeback by the Thunder). To some extent the lack of aggro from the coaching staff to stick it into the Thunders also contributed to the 0-4 streak, why was Kendrick Perkins not “shaqued”, why no “zen master” mind games played – to get an easy to arouse Westbrook, start over stretching himself and making crucial mistakes. Lastly, the key moment was the first quarter of Game 5, Thunder had never won before at AT&T Centre, were visibly nervous, had four or five turnovers in the first 6 minutes, yet were tied, as Spurs could not convert even a single turnover into a point. For me the series was over. The Spurs share a trait with the Indian cricket team, coming back from behind is not a virtue for both of them. The fairy tale comebacks – down 20 points are not the storylines for Spurs (or the Indian cricket team’s) victories, steady brick by brick, mostly undramatic wins are the core strengths of both the teams, achieved through unrelenting pressure, ball movements, some few moments of intense defense are the usual storylines. Hope these storylines include a championship!

  • Tim in Surrey

    You do realize that Curry played for the Heat last year, that he couldn’t get playing time ahaed of “their jokes of centers”, and that they chose to let him go even though the best player they had available to replace him was Josh Harrrelson? But hey, what does Pat Riley know about building a roster?

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  • STIJL

    He would hopefully be a legitimate low post scoring threat absent Duncan on the court who could in the least keep what OKC did against the Spurs which was not paying attention to the Spurs post game without Duncan on the court and gambling to shut down driving/passing lanes and spaced themselves to be able to run at our shooters with success in not allowing them an easy shot.

    But other than having Eddy Curry (even if he’s in better shape than just last year for the Heat), the Spurs need to be able to defend better than they did last year. If OKC managed to score seemingly at will in that series…could you imagine what Miami would have done if the Spurs and Heat met?

    A cool article to read would be something in the line of…”How Can the Spurs Improve Team Defense?”

  • Horatio

    And no one wanted Gary Neal, Danny Green was a castoff from awful post-LeBron Cleveland, and Boris Diaw was cut by the worst team in the league.

    Not to say Eddy Curry is going to be a stud by any stretch but there’s a chance he could contribute. Its a low risk move if he is a bust (unlike RJ….)

    I’d love to have a long athletic big who couldn’t throw it in the ocean, a poor man’s Tyson Chandler or Serge Ibaka….I’d package a guard, Blair, and a pick for Varajao if the contracts worked. Throw in Bonner too.

    But, I don’t see any of that happening. Curry is big if nothing else and has some post moves.

    Also, I’m really looking for Patty Mills to emerge as a solid rotation player with some highlights here and there, allowing Pop to ration TP’s minutes a little more carefully like he does Tim and Manu

  • Bob

    I said right after the WCF that the Thunder played better Spurs ball offensively. Nice to get some validation from Pop. Yeah the Spurs continued to score well after game 2 but they got less contributions across the board while the Thunder got more. Basically the Spurs relied more on their big 3 and the Thunder less. The irony is that OKC got to that point by relying so strongly on their big 3 while it was the opposite for the Spurs.

  • Bob

    The Heat didn’t even have a real center. I have no doubt Duncan could have had a field day against them. Look at what he did to the Clippers. The problem was OKC has the best post defender tandem in Perkins and Ibaka.

  • Bob

    Good points. I agree about the need for better defense. Yet I think the offense affected the Spurs defense. The Spurs offense got more concentrated into fewer individuals and less people started contributing even though the overall output didn’t change much. As a result you’re asking more on offense and defense from less people and it’s hard to keep the same level of defense as in games 1-2.

  • Bob

    You can’t seriously believe Bonner will actually be able to ever be a serious playoff contributer. The guy plays scared. That’s not going to work.

  • Bob

    I think an argument could definitely have been made for Blair to get minutes. OKC’s frontcourt isn’t known for their offense and the pressure Blair would have put on their defense would have probably helped. Bonner was useless drawing the big out of the paint and Diaw/Splitter weren’t aggressive enough.

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