AT&T CENTER--Having worked alongside Gregg Popovich for 17 years as an assistant coach, spanning Tim Duncan's illustrious career, first year Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenzholzer helped instill most of what drives the Spurs system today. Loop sets, Hammer plays, and pin downs, all staples of the Spurs system that Budenholzer is trying to incorporate in Atlanta.
It was the latter of the three aforementioned pet actions that took center stage Monday night in San Antonio, as Tim Duncan capped off a 23-point, 21-rebound performance with a game-winning shot off a play Budenholzer had probably seen a thousand different times in practice with the Spurs.
The play begins with Duncan setup at the opposite elbow on a sideline entry pass, with Ginobili and Parker on either low block and Kawhi at the top of the key. Like most Popovich inbounds plays, the key will be multiple actions designed to create several viable options that all hide the play's true intent.
As Marco Belinelli triggers the inbounds play, Duncan works his way across the lane to Parker's spot as Parker pops out to the corner. Simultaneously, Leonard and Ginobili cross paths, freeing Ginobili to get the ball at the top of the key as Parker races from corner to corner, behind Duncan and around a Leonard screen on the other side. If executed properly, the play will tilt the defense to the opposite side as it guards what looks to be a curl being setup for Parker with a backdoor option for Leonard.
From here you can almost see what's coming next: With the side cleared out, Belinelli (the inbounder) immediately sprints to set a pin down screen for Duncan, which will either free him at the elbow, or Belinelli at the rim:
If the play looks familiar, it should. The Spurs have run it several times in the past to free Duncan for what has become his favorite spot at the elbow. Asked about the specific play call after the game, Duncan immediately noted it was last run in a game-winner over the Los Angeles Clippers a season ago. If you watch one play right after the other, you can see almost the exact same events unfold due to the Spurs uncanny execution:
While the Atlanta Hawks are still very much a work in progress under Budenholzer, the Spurs have practiced these sets for years. For the key players, each pick and cut have been broken down to the last detail--from the timing of each screen to the angle that it's set--and repeated to the point that this set (along with many others) has become ingrained in their muscle memory.
"They did a good job running that play," Al Horford said. "They had guys flying all over the place. Belinelli came into the paint, I called the switch. If I could have gone back, I probably would have tried to chase Duncan off of there, but Belinelli got me pretty good. I've got to give him credit, that's how he was able to get free and get that shot up."
Look hard enough, and you can see hints of the same misdirection and timing that Popovich has drawn upon in the Hawks. Watch Jeff Teague (19 points, seven assists)--a jet quick point guard who once struggled to utilize that gift in a meaningful way--work off the ball, running through a series of screens along the baseline to come clean off a curl and attack a defender closing out at a poor angle.
Or Al Horford, anchoring a defense while working the elbows, reversing the ball, and slipping in for the occasional post opportunity, with Paul Millsap extending his range out to the three-point line to help space the floor.
Yes, the bones are still relatively bare (though this is still a team with Eastern Conference playoff implications), but the foundations are settling into place. And while Budenholzer utilizes the lessons learned under Popovich to help build his team, for a night he also go an opportunity to turn that knowledge against his former employer, sniffing out the Spurs intentions and directing his players to the key spots the Spurs tried to establish.
"I think at some point he just gave up, he was just like, 'whatever, we're going to call our plays'," Duncan said when asked if Popovich had trouble coming up with something Budenholzer hadn't seen. "Our offense is in front of their bench and they're calling out what we're doing. But we just had to execute and try to do the best you can."
The Spurs were hardly sharp, turning the ball over 17 times to keep Atlanta competitive throughout despite the Spurs shooting 53.8 percent for the game. Ball security near the rim, in particular, seemed to be an issue..
Tiago Splitter (four turnovers) would either show the ball too low, or too early, getting it swiped by smaller players or big men coming down from their jump after Splitter executed a successful shot fake. Parker (four turnovers) likewise had trouble holding onto the ball, getting it poked from behind by Teague on one play while coming out of a spin move near the rim.
With both teams knowing the others' plays, the game often delved into chaotic randomness, which both degraded the Spurs overall execution, and provided some moments for its creative second unit.
Boris Diaw, coming off a dislocated finger, had another impactful game with 16 points and three assists. Within the first few seconds of both sharing the court, Ginobili and Belinelli showcased their growing rapport, with Ginobili driving along one baseline as Belinelli (13 points, four rebounds, three assists, and one solid screen for Duncan in the closing seconds) snuck behind defenders from the other for a backdoor layup.
The bench helped carry the Spurs offense as it has all season, making up for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green's continued struggles (a combined seven points on 3-14 shooting). It's been a rough few games for Leonard, who has seen his three-point shooting regress (0-2 tonight) while starting to show some hesitation (throwing a shot fake and driving into a shot clock violation).
"From time-to-time a player is going to have a couple of games where he looks a little bit out of kilter," Popovich said when asked about Leonard's performance. "It happens to Manu, it happens to Tim, it happens to guys on other teams. It's not a big deal."
Not too long ago Duncan's early struggles were starting to gain traction as a big deal everywhere besides the Spurs own locker room, even as the Spurs continued to pile up wins. Duncan started the season off on an early season slump, though he seems to have gotten his legs back under him now, posting 16.6 points and 10.2 rebounds in his last five games according to ESPN, the last two of which have been against quality defensive big men in Dwight Howard (who Duncan scored 20 points and eight rebounds against) and Horford.
Now Duncan, no longer today's best power forward, travels to Mexico City to face the man that holds that current distinction, Kevin Love. But if Duncan has proven anything the last three games, it's that he's never far from that discussion. And if Monday night showed anything, he can still teach Love a thing or two (even when it comes to outlet passes); just ask Coach Budenholzer, he's seen it all before.