“They were hungrier than we were, and we started the game sloppy, and it, we, set a tone. “
Just a taste of what the Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich had to say after seeing his team fall to the Knicks 128-115 on Tuesday night, but none more true or appropriate. Not when when speaking to long-term success, at least.
Popovich would go on to make sure he didn’t discredit the Knicks early-season, crown jewel accomplishment—hanging the fifth loss on a team in the midst of a historic start to the season (30-6)—making sure to acknowledge the aggressive and physical nature of their counterpart and how his team lacked that same kind of disposition, play. But make no mistake, the loss was on his team, his players—his coaching?
In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday night’s game, I can’t say the loss to the Knicks particularly stuck in the craw or had me all that upset. The Spurs are going to lose games, teams will just be flat-out better some nights; the Spurs will have games where they just flat-out can’t get it done others. It’s a long season and ebb and flow is inherent in basketball. Sometimes you’ve just got to tip the ol’ cap and keep it moving (otherwise the Knicks would still be scoring).
So it’s easy to say,”Hey, what can you do? The Knicks were unconscious,” and keep it moving. Move on to the next city or game and burn the tape somewhere in between. But when the goals are as lofty as this Spurs team, it’s not quite as easy.
Each game is an opportunity to learn, grow. They’re an opportunity to sharpen and hone a team’s play and skill for a championship endgame—and they reveal and expose plenty about a team in the process.
The Spurs were swept out of last year’s Western Conference semifinals primarily because of their inability to match up to the smaller and faster Suns. Duncan was too immobile for the defensive switches and the Suns’ “smalls” were bigger and more athletic than than that of the Spurs. Often Duncan would find himself being pulled away from the basket to contest a midrange jumper or 3-point shot by Grant Hill, Jarred Dudley or Channing Frye, leaving the board vulnerable for second-chance points and/or the rim unprotected once the first line of defense was beaten. The Spurs played from their heels, scrambling as best they could to contest and contain, but they were always behind the 8-ball—the loss of Bowen and Duncan’s physical decline led to the demise of a once-sound game plan for the Suns.
Tuesday night only helped to strengthen and reinforce that point. The Spurs did as they had done for years with the Suns successfully—and most recently, unsuccessfully—going under screens and switching willingly, eagerly.
In years past, that strategy had success because of attention to detail—facing the Suns had a way of making a fan feel as if their team was standing in the NBA’s Hurt Locker: one false move and the whole thing could go up in smoke. But the Spurs had the ability to both control the Suns’ point of attack and backboard. They could disrupt Nash’s vision and playmaking with Bowen’s length and speed or they could dictate where Nash’s shots would come from by simply going under the screen; they could control the paint and tempo with their superior rebounding.
Times change—personnel, too.
Even as the Spurs acquiesced to a degree, picking a poison an altering their game plan and attack for the Suns, they still dictated the terms. They had the means to give a little to take more—the ability to keep themselves within striking distance to capitalize on the opposition’s mistakes at the most opportune of times. Their versatility was disciplined, and plenty capable.
Juxtapose that with the team currently donning the Spurs and the ones who found themselves bounced just after four games in last year’s second round of the playoffs, and you begin to understand how the Spurs could look so inept defensively just coming off one of their best defensive stretches of the year. Matchups—this Spurs team still can’t match up defensively with the high-octane, small-ball offense that’s defined D’antoni’s coaching career.
Simply put, the Spurs no longer have the personnel to dictate the terms or game-plan against a team like the Suns or Knicks the way they used to. And with their inability to do so, well, there will be nights like last Tuesday (even if the next lunar eclipse comes before the Knicks shoot that well again).
But it’s not as cut and dried as saying they don’t have the personnel. The Spurs are capable of winning a game or series against a similar outfit, just not the way they used to—and that goes to coaching.
Tone. How does one establish it, with your players and the opponent? Popovich decided to go back to his Phoenix Suns’ well for a game plan—even after seeing the type of results it had netted recently—and decided to switch and go under the screen. He put his team in a reactive mode from the jump, not a proactive or resourceful one. And given the type of personnel they employ and the kind of defense they have had success with—swarming and engaged, not physicality and size to be heavily percentage-based—asking the Spurs to concede shots or pass off responsibility to the next guy on a switch, right off the bat, doesn’t seem a recipe for success.
The Phoenix Suns asked Tony Parker to hit a jumper once upon a time. He did—again and again and again. And if you’re going to challenge a star player or good shooter to do the same, they’ll oblige more often than not. Certainty breeds comfort; comfort breeds confidence; confidence breeds death.
So when the Spurs went into Tuesday night with a 29-4 record and an opponent that wouldn’t pose much of a threat on the defensive end, some complacency set in. They were looking to score where and when they wanted, forcing action not needed to be forced, when, with patience, the Knicks were more than willing to give.
Turnovers and transition, that’s what the complacency and poor decisions led to. And combined with a soft, reactive defense, the Knicks found some confidence and rhythm-building scores—gasoline meets fire.
Popovich has taken a good amount of heat in recent years for throwing in the towel early (he’d receive it again against the Knicks, conceding the game with over 3-minutes left to play), sitting out players or seemingly sacrificing games for what he believed to be a Big Picture purpose. And while there’s certainly enough logic to be found in many of those decisions, it all goes back to that idea of “tone”—why was it that Ginobili and others were so adamant about getting the Spurs off to a fast start and that the coaches avoid the same lineup and scheme-tinkering of a year ago? Had it only been about a few extra losses, maybe some seeding, or had it been detrimental to the team’s urgency and competiveness? Had it gotten to a point where players were always looking ahead and finding themselves—as a team and individually—a step behind once it was time to put their best foot forward?
Four championship rings affords you the benefit of a doubt, not the absence of scrutiny. And when the stakes are as high and a team’s Golden Age of basketball and a franchise’s single greatest player’s career is winding to a close, a doubt’s benefit has a funny way of becoming doubted.
If you want a defensive identity, play defensive players. If you want to combat complacency, employ schemes and challenges that require players to engage, compete. If you want to set a tone, it’s done with actions, not words.
And when your team drops back-to-back games for the first time all year in much the same defensive fashion—playing soft at the point of attack, constantly chasing defensively and neglecting to play your best defensive personnel—actions speak louder than words ever could.