The Spurs, Lakers, Grizzlies and Space

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From the head coach to the players, there weren’t many answers coming from the bowels of the AT&T Center after the Los Angeles Lakers 98-84 physical dismantling of the San Antonio Spurs.

Statements proclaiming an unexplainable lack of focus, or a need to play harder and smarter were offered half-heartedly. But the simplest truth was summed up succinctly by head coach Gregg Popovich.

“The Lakers played great and they beat us to death,” Popovich said. “There’s nothing else you can say about it.”

The embarrassing loss was a confluence of damning circumstances for the Spurs—players came out flat and unprepared for an unusually keyed in Andrew Bynum, the Lakers bench played over their heads—that can be dismissed as simply a bad night.

Even with Kobe Bryant, these Lakers are not 20-something points better than the San Antonio Spurs.

But the loss did well to bring the Spurs most glaring weakness to the forefront. In terms of public perception, in one night Andrew Bynum was able to rip the scab off the festering wound that was last season’s playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies for the Spurs.

For all their improvements this season, and there have legitimately been quite a few, the San Antonio Spurs are still vulnerable against an abundance of size.

Andrew Bynum’s 30-rebound performance emphatically punctuated that point, but fails to fully encompass the extent of their vulnerability.

In the waning years of Tim Duncan’s career, the Spurs have maintained their status as an upper-echelon team through their manipulation of time and space. Their utilization of shooters and player and ball movement help create open spacing on the floor where Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can wreak havoc.

The combinations of Bynum and Gasol, and even Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, exist to consume space.

And while that most obviously manifests itself on the defensive end where the Spurs struggled to rebound and defend the paint, against the Lakers or Grizzlies it’s not a problem unique to the Spurs in the NBA. No team really has an answer to keeping these frontline tandems from their respective 20-10 double-doubles.

Where the Spurs are vulnerable is in providing a response of their own. The days of claiming ownership of the paint by simply planting Tim Duncan in the lane like a 7-foot “Come and Take It” flag are gone, and have been for some time.

The Spurs are still able to maintain an inside-out approach thanks to the dribble penetration of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, but against an engaged Bynum or Grizzlies, that equation changes.

For all their strengths as elite ball handlers and finishers, the duo of Ginobili and Parker are deficient when it comes to explosive verticality. The entire roster is. That was apparent last night on any one of Ginobili’s drives that ended up with the Argentine engulfed and smothered by Bynum and Gasol.

Even a sliver of space is generally enough for either to ignite the Spurs entire offense, and there was a time Duncan supplied it in massive quantities like an oxygen tank on an acetylene torch.

That tank isn’t entirely empty, but it’s not as free flowing as it once was, either.

Tiago Splitter, for all his length, manipulates space more than he creates it. This is why the Spurs employ Matt Bonner, and why simply not playing him in these matchups is not a viable option for the Spurs.

The thought that running Bonner off the 3-point line negates his worth is short sighted. Running Bonner off the line means a defensive player had to rotate out there in the first place. The onus then falls on the rest of the Spurs to react and exploit the opening quickly.

Between DeJuan Blair and Boris Diaw, the Spurs have two quality interior passers, but the lack of respect paid to them as scoring threats by the Grizzlies or Lakers also mutes their contributions.

Defending the likes of the Lakers or Grizzlies on the interior remains a weakness for the Spurs, but truthfully, few teams have competent answers.

An elite defensive big man to pair with Duncan would be ideal, but they are also expensive and the Spurs have precious few resources to acquire one. Instead the Spurs must deploy their frontlines strategically, trusting that there will be enough pride not to surrender such a horrid rebounding performance throughout a seven-game series, and transform the game from a vertical one, to one played side-to-side.

Anything less, and the Spurs playoff hopes will be suffocated.

  • Bob

    “The thought that running Bonner off the three-point line negates his
    worth is short sighted. Running Bonner off the line means a defensive
    player had to rotate out there in the first place. The onus then falls
    on the rest of the Spurs to react and exploit the opening quickly.”

    How often do the Spurs exploit this? Usually they have to reset with even less time on the clock.

  • Len

    I agree.  Too often Boner just dribbles into traffic in the lane and Tony/Maun/Gary have to come and get the ball from him or it’s a Boner floater in the lane.  Either option is not a good thing.

  • Deeds130

    “In the waning years of Tim Duncan’s career, the Spurs have maintained their status as an upper-echelon team”… to the tune of 7 playoff wins over the past 3 seasons.  The truth is they have been a middling playoff team in that span. 

    Bonner may fit the system better than any of our other bigs, but that could easily prove once again to be just the problem. Working around Bonner and his skill set has meant forfeiting the priority of instilling a tougher, nastier, more playoff-worthy system. Or at least have it available in our tool box! It’d be one thing if Bonner were a clutch, agressive, uber-talented Dirk Nowitzki (whose managed to get one ring in 14 seasons), or Durant. But beating up the weak regular season teams across the nation is impressive only in comparison to those teams. Until I see a system which gives you a better presence against these kind of big physical teams that always make a run in the post-season, I wouldn’t call playing Matt Bonner anything other than an over-rated, over-valued contigency plan.

  • Agutierrez

     The other issue with Bonner is whether any offense he is providing is being offset by the man he is guarding exploiting him on the other end. To his credit, Matt has done a far better job this year on defense and has not been exploited nearly as much as he was in the past. But that was not the case last night. He got abused (granted, so did Blair).

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IYOK27SYODWR5EOM2SJLHWK4G4 WAMBO

    We could not shoot last night its simple as that!  Did Gary Neal play at last at all? I can’t remember.
    If we made some shot this would be a different story.  Nothing to scream or worry about yet not when Pop is the Man and if we improve our shooting ability when the person shooting is open.

    GO SPURS GO

  • Lvmainman

    Spurs are 7-5 against teams that are playoff bound in their last 12 games.

    That impressive 11 game win streak only had 3 playoff bound teams.

    The Spurs have been outrebounded 110 to 71 in the last 2 games.

    Spurs in the offseason need to consider an Greg Oden type reclamation type or Anthony Randolph type languishing on a bench that can play.(Randolph, the 22 yr old, had 28 points in 31 minutes on 11 of 16 shooting, 6 rebs, and 5 BLK SHOTS! last night)

  • Tim

    I miss Oberto.

  • Bob

     For Bonner to be more valuable he’s got to be able to get his shot off. He’s 6’10″ I don’t know why he plays like a guard.

  • grego

    Neal did not play. He was out for injury or at least saved for the Grizz game. 

  • http://twitter.com/blanchard48moh Jesse Blanchard

    And the Timberwolves still gave up 113 points on 50 percent shooting and 40 percent from three. 

  • Fkj74

    Why doesn’t Pop play Duncan and Splitter together vs big frontlines

  • Deeds130

    TD + Splitter isn’t enough to take on the LA frontline. But I do think that Splitter’s aggression in the PnR could get us some easier points and he might be able to draw some fouls. Even if Tiago fouls out of the game himself, so what, these days he gets limited minutes anyway.

  • theghostofjh

    “Bonner may fit the system better than any of our other bigs, but that could easily prove once again to be just the problem. Working around Bonner and his skill set has meant forfeiting the priority of instilling a tougher, nastier, more playoff-worthy system ……… Until I see a system which gives you a better presence against these kind of big physical teams that always make a run in the post-season, I wouldn’t call playing Matt Bonner anything other than an over-rated, over-valued contingency plan.”

    Hear, hear! Bonner should be the fifth big on this team, except for maybe against poor regular season teams, and in certain well-circumscribed situations/match-ups. In the playoffs, and especially against the bigger and better defensive teams, we should try damn hard not to use him much at all. He got absolutely torched and abused by Speight’s tonight, and if a team was smart, they would just run with two SF’s when he’s in the game, and have one of them stick with Bonner around the arc, including in the transition game. Bonner would be rendered almost entirely harmless. It makes no sense that teams don’t do that more often.

  • John

    Thanks Jesse, Great analysis as always.

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