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.

  • Tim in Surrey

    Exactly. Everybody has been parroting Steve Kerr and Reggie Miller by calling for the Thunder to go small and “switch on everything” (if I see anybody else post that phrase I’m gonna scream–get your own material!). The Thunder has problems galore when they go small. I hadn’t actually been thinking about pace and how it helps the Spurs’ efficiency. I was just thinking that you’re asking Durant to be your power forward on both ends, which he’s poorly suited for in terms of defense and rebounding. Does anybody here really believe that the solution to the Thunder’s problems is more offense and less defense and rebounding? Didn’t think so. Meanwhile the Spurs can simply move Kawhi there, where he’s still more comfortable than as a wing. They don’t really lose anything on D or on the glass and yet they get to replace Diaw with Neal, who is even more effective as a passer and shooter.

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  • Titletown99030507d

    But Gary Neal like I said before he cannot guard a snail. What is up with that guy? 

    And wasn’t Blair’s great performances during the regular season against the Thunder were against the Thunder’s small ball line up? We have yet to see that again if the thunder go small for the rest of the series.

  • Brian Augustine

    Interesting figures.  Makes me wonder how the Spurs would match up against Boston, who plays in the complete opposite manner.  Truly a test of wills, I think.

  • Tyler

    Can the Thunder really get worse defensively by going small? They just gave up 120. To be kind, what they’re doing isn’t working. 
    IMO, they don’t have any choice but to go small and take Perkins out. His inability to defend the PnR has allowed TP to shred their defense. That’s by far their biggest problem right now. Sure, they’re going to give up some mismatches, but they’re already giving up everything. 

    Regardless though, they’re not beating the Spurs. 

  • grego

    They’d cheat off Blair in the lane. That would hurt the Spurs offense. And he’s not exactly a good defender. Heck, Blair is a better rebounder. That and you can’t leave him as the sole “big”

  • Thaddeus Clark

    I think it should be noted that OKC’s ultra small line-up last night not only outscored the Spurs, but also stretched the Spurs defense causing one-on-one match-ups instead of a team oriented defense. 

    OKC’s desperation born out of necessity created the first stretch of basketball in which the Spurs truly looked vulnerable. OKC continually got drives to the hoop, foul calls, and threw the offense out-of-whack by switching with an almost all perimeter unit. 

    I’m sure Pop and the staff are considering their options to combat this move for Game 3 and I’m willing-to-bet that part of that strategy involves actually going bigger by playing two rolling bigs at once so that the switching defense of OKC is overmatched down-low after screen switching and also preserves ball-movement.

    Otherwise we’re just playing one-on-one-on-one…which is what OKC excels at, but not the Spurs.
     SAS had some heroic and low-percentage shots by Ginoboli and Parker as well as timely fouls vs. OKC go their way to avoid losing the lead and preserving the win. 
    The second adjustment that I was surprised to not see last night is the Spurs playing zone when OKC is in all-small-pick-up-basketball mode. 

    Brooks will most likely try the same line-up of Ibaka, Durant, Harden, Westbrook, and most likely Thabo or Cook instead of Fisher. The Spurs will have to cheat or shade off the stationary shooters and shift more toward the drivers/creators to try their best to prevent the drives to the rim that catalyzed the OKC come-back effort. 

    The good news is that this may be OKC’s last strategic adjustment and that their roster doesn’t provide the ability to play the switching defense all game long. 
    The other good news is that (hopefully) Diaw isn’t in foul trouble when this move is made again by OKC, because I think his 5 fouls limited Pop’s ability to combat the switching D.  As soon as Diaw re-entered around the 3/4 minute mark of the 4th the Spurs were again able to move-the-ball better and counter the disruption of switching. 

    The year-long-data-trend of small line-ups doesn’t take into account the OKC line-up from last night and I’m sure they weren’t switching screens – a wrinkle that threw the rhythm of the Spurs offense off more than the Hack-Splitter fouls. 

  • Aehood74

    I think commentators and fans can be deceived by ’cause/effect’ scenarios. The Spurs soared out to a 22 point lead by annihilating the OKC defense and controlling the pace of the game. The Thunder were on their heels, Westbrook in particular, trying to staunch the bleeding all by himself with ill advised heroics. 

    Hacking Tiago worked, not by the effect it made on the scoreboard per se but disrupting the flow of the game. Running their small ball lineup out there not so much is or is going to be more effective but it was a change at a sort of turning point in the game. 

    So, I really don’t see the OKC small ball lineup being the ‘solution’, just another wrinkle. The Spurs were in coast mode when Brooks deployed it and along with the disruption of the Tiago free-throw parade, snatched some of the momentum (too little, too late…. fortunately)

    Pop’s counter to the OKC small ball unit with Leonard at the 4 gives the Spurs a big advantage on the glass and in the paint. Ultimately, its a chicken/egg argument. Did the OKC small lineup give the Spurs problems or did SA let up and coast a little bit while OKC, a damn good team, played with some fire and heart to slug their way back into it? A little of both, I think. 

    As to Gary Neal: I love the guy and am glad he’s a key to the team’s success but he’s not a ball handler. It should be TJ Ford out there spelling TP. Gary is a great shooter and fearless pulling the trigger. He moves well without the ball and spaces the floor. He’s not a great defender, true, but his effort is there. He hit a huge 3 last night to push back the OKC rally. 

    Pop changed it up last night and had Manu, who’s crafty and cunning enough to maintain space and handle the ball up the floor, running the point when Tony rested. I like that move. At some point, possibly next season, I’d like to see Patty Mills handling the ball while TP get his rest and allowing Gary Neal to spot up, come off screens, and find open jumpers. That said, the Spurs are so deep there that James Anderson can’t find the court except at the end of blowouts. 

  • theghostofjh


  • theghostofjh

    Very solid post. Nice job!

  • Juzamaku

    TJ Ford is retired…You mean Patty Mills, which I’m not against to seeing a bit.

  • Aehood74

    No, you miss my meaning. TJ Ford’s retirement represents the only real ‘hole’ in the Spurs roster. He should be the primary backup point but his continued injuries and subsequent retirement left the Spurs short there, pressing GNeal into service.TJ should be out ther according to the original plan. Of course, the original plans included Richard Jefferson…..

    Patty came on too late for Pop’s taste, I guess. I’d like to see him bring the ball up to the front court, hand it off to Manu to run the offense, and go camp the corner 3. 

    Here again, Pop had 4 rings and I have none, so yeah, I guess he knows better than me.

  • Vermont Spurs Fan

    Guys – Did I miss the point? We are up 2-0. Unless Pop misses the plane to OKC we come back to San Antonio up 3-1 or we come back after a sweep and wait for the finals. Even if the Thunder win the 2 in OKC historically the team without home court still loses is all they do is split. 

    So at this point other than enjoy the heck out of what we are seeing unfold, we can just help Pop look for T-shirt slogans. “It’s a Big Boy Game” has some traction after the “I want some more Nasty” runs the course. These are great slogans because they talk about the Spurs and not about someone else. Spurs don’t talk bad about other teams they just play. I think “Drive for Five” is something that I have read a lot and that might make it a slogan for the Finals (if we get there). 


     “I’m sure Pop and the staff are considering their options to combat this
    move for Game 3 and I’m willing-to-bet that part of that strategy
    involves actually going bigger by playing two rolling bigs at once so
    that the switching defense of OKC is overmatched down-low after screen
    switching and also preserves ball-movement.”

    This is an acute observation which more than likely would happen.  And in fact it has already happened in one of the regular season games the Spurs played against the Thunder.  (I believe the third when Blair went off).

    Anyway…solid post.  Something to look forward to in this series since the Thunder don’t have an answer as of yet to beating the Spurs even though they have played some of their best basketball to date.

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