The Thunder’s “Small” Problem: San Antonio’s Optimal Pace
On Monday, I fielded questions for a statistical Q&A over at the Gothic Ginobili. One of them came from our very own Timothy Varner, who asked the following.
QUESTION #12: I’m interested in the Spurs’ success relative to possessions per game. Is there a number of possessions per game that seem to treat them unfavorably? That is, say, less than 90 or some such. Is there actually a pace at which they play better or worse, or is that just something we make up?
The quick answer I gave Tim? The Spurs play better at a fast pace, and markedly worse at a slow pace — the numbers would tend to prove his assertion. It turns out I’d miscounted, however, and improperly assessed the true numbers. I realized this after-the-fact, and in doing research to correct it, came across a few trends that are worth looking at going forward. I go over the statistical profiles at various paces of each remaining team in the NBA’s final foursome, but I thought it’d be valuable to show the evolution of Spurs performances at various paces throughout the season. To wit, a few important notations. First, the Spurs play much, much better at a faster pace. We all suspected it, but this rather proves it — when the Spurs get over 95 possessions in a game, they’re 28-3 with an average differential of 9.6. That figure would not only lead the league this season, but would lead the league in the last 15 years — the last team with a differential like that over a full season was the 1997 Chicago Bulls. That’s pretty alright, I’d say.
The broader point here isn’t just that the Spurs play better faster, though. The big point you can extract from this table is that the Thunder’s effort to speed the game up is — quite possibly — doomed to fail. After all, the Spurs rate out as a markedly better team in a faster-paced, uptempo game. The Thunder don’t. In games where the Thunder used more than 95 possessions, they rated out as a team with an efficiency differential around +4.8 points per game — in terms of comparable teams over the full season, that’s most similar to the Nuggets and Sixers of this season. That indicates a problem with the Spurs/Thunder “smallball” conundrum — if the Thunder aren’t a better team when the speed it up, but the Spurs are, how are they to match up playing smallball with the Spurs? Ideally, they’d play small, rebound better, and keep the tempo slower than San Antonio’s optimum. But in practice this is incredibly hard to do, especially when the other team plays small-for-small and tries to force the tempo.
What are the Thunder to do, exactly? It’s a good question, but to me, the answer is rather simple. Stop trying to match the team you’re facing and play your own game. The Thunder excelled in this in the late stretches of last night’s contest, after the Splat-a-Splitter ordeal took the Spurs completely out of their rhythm and got San Antonio to stop forcing the tempo and regress to the Thunder’s ideal pace of the game — a fast contest relative to the Eastern Conference, but a slow contest relative to the breakneck pace that the Spurs try to play at. And that’s really the point. Part of the Spurs success comes from their ability to force the pace of a game to adhere to the speed they want it to be played at. When the Thunder switched to a free-throw game, they didn’t shave many points off the lead. In fact, over the duration of the hacking, they only shaved a single point off the lead. But as they stopped, the Spurs had lost their advantage in forcing the pace, and ceded the tempo to the Thunder offense. This allowed them to get back into their own comfort zone, make a few shots, and keep the Spurs honest. By keeping note of this general trend, Popovich can adjust in the incoming two games to try and keep the Thunder out of the comfort zone that very nearly stole them game two, and keep the Spurs playing fast. It’s true that the commentariat tends to think that’ll work to the Thunder’s advantage.
But the data? Well, that’s a different story, and one that Popovich can surely leverage going forward for a few points, here and there.
For more on the pace issues of the other 3 teams, check today’s post on Gothic Ginobili.