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.