The Spurs just don’t have it. They just don’t have, it.
Whatever “it” has been this year—by most accounts, defensive help in the frontcourt and on the wing—the lack of it has prevented a fair amount of people, fans or otherwise (this guy included) from jumping on the Spurs’ championship bandwagon. Call it conventional wisdom, call it set in one’s ways, call it what you will, it is what it is—and what it is, is knowing what works; what has worked.
A healthy amount of skepticism is never a bad thing. But skepticism can quickly become cynicism, leaving a curmudgeon in its wake. There comes a time where the skeptic has to become skeptical of their skepticism: “Am I looking to prove a point, or have I yet to be proven wrong?”
While it’s still too early to know that answer for certain, games like the one witnessed Tuesday give a skeptic hope.
After an inauspicious start for the home team—a 10-3 deficit, Bryant converting on 4 of 5 shots for a quick 8 points—the Spurs needed a rudder. They were tight, playing a little too quick and without much composure—enter Tony Parker.
Parker clearly sensed his team was in need of some leadership. The crowd’s Laker contingent was having a little too much fun and the vibe just wasn’t right. The Spurs needed a bucket, stat, and Parker delivered by calmly draining an elbow jumper in early offense as if he was the only player on the court. It’s little, seemingly insignificant points that make a game 10-5 instead of 10-3 that make all the difference. It’s moments that tell teammates “We’re good.” or “They’ve had their fun, our turn.” that instill belief and confidence in a team, develop a swagger. It usually comes from a team’s leader(s), Parker obliged on this occasion.
The Spurs would settle and close the first quarter on a 16-2 run. But the Spurs were playing the champs, an elite team with undeniable talent and experience, and righting the ship is temporary—the journey isn’t over until you’ve reached shore.
Almost exactly as the game started, the Lakers went on an 8-0 run to start the second quarter, only their bench unit had been responsible this time. The Spurs struggled to hit their customary shots and had trouble getting to the basket with the Lakers’ length—the Spurs found themselves down 42-40 at the half. But what was seen on the highlights and what will be remembered by Spurs fans most, is George Hill’s unwillingness to back down or acquiesce to one of the NBA’s best, Kobe Bryant.
If you didn’t know, now you know: be careful what you ask for—or how you step to [George Hill].
And after Hill stood his ground, Blair decided to gain, shake and move a little of his own. In the third quarter, the 21-year-old Pitt product opened the frame with a teardrop and then brought the thunder, recording 7 points, 8 rebounds (3 offensive), two steals and leaving his team up eleven in the plus/minus after just 7:56 of play.
Blair’s early-season struggles have been well documented, and it’s caused some to question where he would be most effective, or even whom he’d be effective against. But his talent and ability to produce have never been in question, nor has the confidence he naturally exudes. He, like Hill, is built of the right timber—it’s a matter of when, not if. Given the fortune of good health, Big and Smallz (as they affectionately refer to one another) will eventually put it all together, both the mental and physical aspects of the game. But for now, fans will see their best basketball when they’re given an assignment, a task, a team like the Lakers—an opponent that comes to the court as a known quantity, someone whose offense and defense have been heavily scouted by the coaching staff—that’s when the duo is at their best.
And in the fourth quarter, Hill and Blair displayed some of their best.
For Blair, it was more of the same, putting up another four points and grabbing six more rebounds. The pearly whites were on full display. But Hill? In his second game back after returning from a toe injury, the man emptied the tank. Simply put, he was everywhere on the defensive end, creating havoc with both his on-ball and help defense—Hill decided to show Kobe he not only stood strong, he had the game to back it up.
And after Manu Ginobili was late to Kobe in transition and Gary Neal got caught up on a down screen, the Lakers closed to within nine after consecutive Bryant 3s. Unease beset the building, as it seemed Kobe was on the brink of a scoring binge. What happened next was so matter of fact and unspectacular that it was, indeed, spectacular: Hill advanced the ball up court on the dribble, dropped the ball off to Neal just outside the three-point line and then ran a wheel play—going from the left wing to under the basket to the right wing—Hill caught the ball off an elbow curl and calmly knocked down the jumper. Spurs up eleven—they would get a stop the next possession, and eventually put the game out of reach via Neal and, finally, Ginobili 3s.
So far as regular season wins go, beating the defending champion is always a nice feather in the cap, and it may have even bolstered the belief of these current Spurs. There’s absolutely nothing negative to glean from a 15-point win over the defending champs, especially when they have a full compliment of players, two of your three best players can’t put the ball in the hole and when you’re able to give a player as valuable as McDyess the night off in the process.
But it’s one game, and those Lakers—the Lakers team seen Tuesday (the one that had been blown out by Milwaukee and Miami the two games prior)—were not the Lakers team you can expect to see come May. And to be fair, neither were the Spurs—though they seemed to display a foreshadowing of who they will be and what the coaching staff this summer hoped to mold them into being.
Length, Speed and Swagger: Spurs’ Recipe for Success–Part 2
It stands to reason a team’s management would evaluate the playing field. Millions upon millions upon millions of dollars are invested, jobs and livelihoods are on the line—and in the fortunate cases of a handful—championships and legacies hang in the balance. Not every contender is given the benefit of an Uncle Jerry to exert his influence over the franchise he just relinquished the reins to, most have to think outside the box and find a way to piece it all together. They give to get, hoping the give is worth the get. But, again, that’s most.
The Spurs weren’t going to acquire their own Pau Gasol. They weren’t going acquire Bruce Bowen’s heir apparent. The Spurs—short of learning David Kahn was a distant, loving relative—needed to survey the landscape and focus on what they could control—what they could use to control. They needed to focus on what they did have and how it could be augmented. They needed to be realistic. They needed to realize their long-term objectives would only be achieved if the pieces being augmented were whole and playing at the top of their games when pay dirt was finally in sight.
What the Spurs needed was a tweak in philosophy, one that would utilize the strengths of their players best. Strengths that an opponent would need to combat—strengths that would allow the Spurs to do the exploiting rather than the other way around. Popovich and Co. needed to let the hands go, counterpunching had taken them as far as they could go. They needed to mix it up, they needed to reevaluate what they really had.
For over a decade the Spurs have been about getting '”stops.” They’ve been defense first, last and foremost. Anyone who’s followed the team for any length of time knew penetration was never allowed middle, instead forced to the baseline and to the help—where roughly fourteen feet awaited. They were a percentage-based defense: stay between the man and the basket, trust the scheme and principles and if the execution is on point, the Spurs win in the end.
That was then, this is now.
What Tuesday’s Spurs-Lakers tilt displayed was how this team will have to go about getting it done defensively: speed and length. A percentage-based defense simply won’t suffice, not when you lack fourteen feet of rim protection, Bruce Bowen and a whistle not as adverse to the defender. The Spurs can’t simply let the opposition hang themselves and die a slow, painful death in the half court, this team will have to get a little blood on their hands (even if Suns’ fans would argue they’ve been doing that for years).
Sure, the Spurs held and grabbed if they needed to. They bumped and impeded and did whatever they could to disrupt an offense's timing. But in the end, once a team learned where they could get their shots, they would be given an opportunity—teams that excelled in the midrange game often gave the Spurs the most trouble (see: Milwaukee and Dallas). And that’s where the philosophical tweak has to take place: giving a calculated opportunity vis-à-vis taking the opportunity away altogether.
It’s the difference between staying at home on your assignment and making a gamble. It’s the difference between playing behind your man and fronting or three-quartering to prevent the post entry pass. What the Spurs have been doing on the perimeter in passing lanes for most of the year and what was witnessed Tuesday night on the interior with a player like Blair—swarming, principled chaos not adverse to risk— those are the type of tactics that will have to win out—and it has more importance to the team than just preventing an opposition’s score.
A big part of that Spurs’ percentage-based defense was about limiting possessions. They were 7-Seconds-Left prior to the Suns 7-Seconds-or Less. They used the shot clock—milked the shot clock—snapped up defensive rebounds like gold in the midst of a recession, and they got back on D to the detriment of their offensive board—no one was going to get a second opportunity. But times have changed, and so have the Spurs.
This Spurs team is going to have to win playing at this higher pace. It’s the only way to circumvent the size and talent possessed by the likes of an L.A. or Boston, two teams with the potential to prevent NBA Finals or championship passage—the Spurs lose the battle to both playing heads-up in the half court. The Spurs are not the Suns of recent years or the Nets of the early aughts, they’re perfectly capable of thriving in the half court against most, they’re just not going to be better at it than the Lakers or Celtics. And in so trying to be, they’d be taking away one of the few advantages they possess to put their counterpart on the ropes.
After years of making the team’s offense an extension of their defense, the Spurs are turning their defense into an offense—and they’ll need to keep it up.
Taking a look down the Spurs’ roster, you find yourself realizing they actually have some quality feet per the position. Outside of Duncan, Jefferson, Neal (though a short wheelbase allows him to close and contest better than some quicker players) and Quinn, each player has the type of feet one could deem quick for the position or role they’re asked to play. Parker at the point, Ginobili at the 2, Hill playing as a rover… that’s a trio capable of wreaking havoc in the passing lanes and on digs to the post—they’re also plenty capable of keeping their man in front, forcing him to shoot over an outstretched hand. Blair, Bonner, McDyess and Splitter may be a tad undersized, but they can certainly move better than most players that don the “big” moniker—Blair’s length, quick feet and lack of height make him a much more disruptive force as a scrambler and at the point of attack in the half court than as a position defender; Bonner’s never served well being forced to defend legit post players playing at their back.
The offensive weaponry is there. Should the Spurs not find their way back to the NBA Finals, it won’t be for lack of firepower. And, judging by the makeup of this team, both in its stars and role players, young and old, it won’t be for lack of heart or stomach. But what remains to be seen is if they can utilize their defensive capabilities to the best of their ability.
They need speed. Speed’s what they need. Greasy, fast speed—DeJuan Blair may have to become their I-talian tank.
The takeaway from Tuesday’s game? A validation of course, path. The means to bring the [champion]ship home were put on display. But only the means.
A skeptic, still, I ain’t no curmudgeon (yet).
Follow Nick Kapsis @Kap10Jack