Tag:Gregg Popovich
Posted on: April 7, 2011 10:42 am

How the West was won by San Antonio

Spurs clinch top seed in the West. How the West was won.
Posted by Matt Moore

Not a bad way to finish a season you were expected to land middle of the pack. The San Antonio Spurs crushed the Sacramento Kings Wednesday night (while Tyreke Evans crushed Gary Neal in all sorts of dirty ways), and the Lakers dropped a bizarre game to the Golden State Warriors (their third straight loss, and so the Spurs wind up with the Z. As in the Z in the standings signifying they have clinched homecourt advantage in the Western Conference Playoffs. 

There are questions about the Spurs, let's be clear. This thing became a race down the stretch because San Antonio started to show some very real weaknesses, particularly on the defensive end. But now's not the time for that. Now it's time to celebrate the Spurs for one of their best seasons in history and Pop's work in turning a team that was ousted in the second round by the Suns last season into the West's top slot. 

The Spurs' offense really is a thing of beauty. It's not the constant-ball-movement, high-pace dervish that the Phoenix Suns were a few years ago, and in fact, it has slipped to third in the league in recent weeks. But it's still the very model of efficiency. It relies on individual players creating mismatches with ability, not necessarily athletic prowess, like Manu Ginobili's ability to slip between defenders and then whip passes to the corner, and Tim Duncan's ability to pass out of the low post to kick start rotations. If the defense remains set, they have playmakers to finish at the rim, like Tony Parker and George Hill. But if it starts to commit, the Spurs will punish you with a flurry of perimeter movement to find the open shooter. They have mainstays, like Tim Duncan's short game, and can hammer the glass with DeJuan Blair and Antonio McDyess

Richard Jefferson's perimeter ability has been a monumental reason for the Spurs' offensive up-tick. Jefferson jumped 12 percent from long range from last season, going from a 32 percent shooter to a 44 percent shooter. Much of this is attributable to his devotion to working out of the corner. Spurs' shooters have always made their money from there, and Jefferson finally bought in to that tactic. When he did, he found open look after open look. With his size and length, he's got an advantage on defenders trying to close, and he's lived up to the contract he signed this summer with San Antonio which was questioned. 

The Spurs have won their fair share of big games against tough opponents, with wins over the Lakers, Heat, Mavericks, Bulls, and Magic. They feature a deep and formidable bench with shooters like Matt Bonner, rugged frontcourt rebounders like Blair and McDyess (depending on who's starting), and George Hill is a nice change of pace guard. Rookie Gary Neal has come on and shown that even rookies can get minutes in Popovich's rotations. This may be a deeper team than some of the championship squads. 

But in the end, their hopes rest with the Big 3. Tim Duncan has said publicly several times this season that he knows his time is growing short. Manu Ginobili is no spring chicken. Popovich will only want to continue doing this for so long. And eventually the time will come for Peter Holt to trim down his expenses on a small market franchise. If this is the last ride for the Duncan-era Spurs, it will be the Big 3 that will have to carry them to glory in the face of the most loaded league they've ever had to battle through. But, quietly as always, this team has shown it knows how to win, and it's hungry for that fifth piece of jewelry. 

Yes, there are defensive issues, but the fact remains: this is the best team in the Western Conference in 2011, and if they hit that playoff gear, there's every reason to believe they'll be right there competing for the title deep in the playoffs.
Posted on: April 1, 2011 10:31 am

A historic losing streak for Duncan... five games

Spurs lose five in a row for the first time in the Tim Duncan era. 
Posted by Matt Moore

When the Celtics ran away from the Spurs in the fourth quarter Thursday night, they were making history, they just didn't realize it. With the Spurs falling for the fifth time in a row, it marks the first five-game losing streak in the Tim Duncan era for the Spurs. Granted, it's not like Duncan actually saw those five losses as a player. He was injured for four of the five games. 

Duncan was drafted in 1997. It took thirteen years for the Spurs to lose five in a row with Duncan as a member of the roster. That's stunning. It speaks simultaneously to the rampant success and consistency of Duncan's teams under Popovich and the randomness of luck. Duncan's missed his fair share over the years, though he has played in 78 games or more in eight of those seasons. For the Spurs to never have strung together five losses during that time is at both overwhelmingly impressive and downright bizarre. 

There's something at once fitting and confusing that in what could end up being the most successful regular season of the Duncan era that the Spurs would also suffer their longest losing streak. The Spurs seemed so unbeatable a few months ago and are now not only stumbling to the finish, they've already fallen and are only dragging forward by the the velocity of their own fall. The hope will be that the postseason will bring a different team, a tougher team. But against the Celtics in the fourth quarter of this fifth loss in a row, it wasn't injury or matchups that doomed San Antonio. It was wide open jumpers from Kevin Garnett. It was defense. 

Holding off a five game losing streak this long with Duncan on board is impressive. But there are other concerns besides the trivia-answer aspect here. 
Posted on: March 31, 2011 6:36 pm
Edited on: April 1, 2011 12:58 am

COY: Down to Popovich vs. Thibodeau

Gregg Popovich and Tom Thibodeau have coached brilliantly this year. But who's the NBA Coach of the Year? 
Posted by Matt Moore

They're wrong, you know. Five things are actually certain, not two. Death, taxes, Gregg Popovich will verbally tear you in half should you make an egregious mistake on the floor for him, and Tom Thibodeau will do the same, but be even louder when he does it. The fifth thing? One of those two men will win the 2010-2011 NBA Coach of the Year Award. 

As is the case with any award, particularly this year, there's no shortage of worthy nominees for Coach of the Year. George Karl comes to mind first. After all, he held a fractured, pressured locker room together through the insanity of the Melo saga, then turned a team without a superstar into the fifth seed, one who no one wants to run into in a dark first-round alley. J.R. Smith may be his best scoring component, his point guard is in his third season and two of his best frontcourt defenders are best known for their insane map of tattoos. Karl has done a great job. 

Another head guy that pops up is Lionel Hollins. Hollins has the Grizzlies in the playoffs despite a roster with considerable shortcomings, almost entirely made up of youngsters, and now without its highest paid player with Rudy Gay on the shelf. Zach Randolph is a team leader. Tony Allen is the emotional spark. And the squad that was one of the worst defensive teams in the league last season is all of a sudden a ball-hawking terror on the defensive end. Hollins has been superb. 

Doug Collins is going to sneak under the radar. The Sixers had a disastrous start. It was truly horrible. Then, they got better. Much better. And all of a sudden, they're the team  who is rocketing towards clinching the playoffs with a tough schedule, an over-the-hill star in Elton Brand, and a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none best player in Andre Iguodala. Collins has come out of nowhere to do a bang-up job. 

But in reality, this comes down to those two guys. The two best teams in each conference. But to see the real reason the award comes down to these two, you have to go far beyond the record. And you have to go even beyond that to find who deserves it more between the two basketball geniuses. 

No one saw this coming from San Antonio. They were supposed to be a playoff team, sure. But there was no indication that this season would find the Spurs winning.. and winning... and winning. What Popovich has done is taken a team that was between identities last season and shifted it into a juggernaut. Most people found the re-signing of Richard Jefferson preposterous in light of his contributions last season. Instead, Popovich turned Jefferson into a corner shooter, having him fill the role that so many veteran wings have taken, that of the long, defensive wing who spots-up for kickouts upon drives from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and on kickouts from Tim Duncan. Popovich has created an offensive juggernaut, which was tops in offensive efficiency for most of the season (until the aforementioned George Karl's Nuggets started tearing up opponents). George Hill, DeJuan Blair, Antonio McDyess, even Matt Bonner? These are all parts of the offensive albatross Pop put together out of the ashes of a second-round flameout squad. Yes, the health of the Spurs has helped, and yes, the defensive prowess hasn't been as impressive as previous Spurs teams'. But the proof is in the pudding. Popovich not only pushed the Spurs to topple nearly every team they came across, but kept on them through the dregs of January and February. It's only been in March, against elite playoff teams and dealing with injuries as the team starts to coast towards the playoffs, that the Spurs have shown any vulnerabilities in terms of overall performance. 

Maybe most impressive about Pop's work this year, however, is his ability to get outside of his traditional framework. Instead of blasting his team into smithereens when it's winning about its poor defensive performances, instead Popovich pushed the offense more. He's still cranky about the defense; he's Pop. But he also understood as he always has that winning is what matters in this league; it's results that you're judged by in this league. As the Spurs take on the Celtics Thursday night, the contrast is clear. Both Popovich and Doc Rivers have had to deal with new elements built around the same core, and new identities wrapped around the same principles. But while Rivers' Celtics remained a top team for most of the season, but still struggled to understand who they were as a team, Popovich's Spurs have simply kept speeding forward, destroying whatever was in their way, until just recently. If the defense were a little bit better, or had they driven right through the injuries to Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, there'd be no doubt that this would not only be the best coaching work of Pop's career in a regular season, but one of the better performances by any coach, ever. 

If only. 

NBA Awards
But it's those same reasons that we look across to the other conference, and see the barking, hoarse-voiced rage of another genius, whose team is similarly unbalanced, and yet nearly as successful. Chicago is 54-20, three games behind San Antonio for homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Tom Thibodeau has been everything many thought he'd be in his first year in Chicago, and more. He's combined the raw emotional challenge of Doc Rivers, with the cold, ruthless tactician work of Popovich in previous years. He commands the best defense in the league, on a roster that features Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng in a prominent role. Boozer, Deng, Korver, Rose, Bogans, the list goes on and on of average-to-subpar defenders who all of a sudden are part of the fiercest trap in the league, the stiffest challenge at the rim, the quickest swarm to a loose ball. They are ball-hawks and charge-takers, dunk-stoppers and steak-makers, and they are constantly, constantly, constantly working to help one another to close any holes in their defense.

Thibodeau has the Bulls believing in themselves, 100 percent convinced that there is no limit to how far they can go. Playoffs? Who cares about making the playoffs. Let's talk about winning the championship. Not in a year. Not in a few years. Now. They buy in, completely and totally, to the team concept, to the defensive principles, to the guidance of their coach and the leadership he's instilled in his star point guard. 

Ah, Rose.

To give Thibodeau credit is as short-sighted as giving Rose credit for the Bulls' defense. In reality, both have excelled by letting the other do their thing. Coaches are often attributed with the success of improving a player, ignoring the work done in the offseason and the fact that so often, these star players simply break off the play and go be their awesome selves. Thibodeau has been honest about his approach. The Bulls' offense isn't a juggernaut, even within the Eastern Conference and certainly not when stacked up against San Antonio's. But it gets the job done, because Thibodeau has taken a hands-off approach. He trusts his players to execute, and trusts his star point guard to make plays. How often do we see coaches doom their teams by demanding they play within the system? Thibs merely asks them to commit to his proven defensive principles, and in return, gives them the freedom to be the players they are. It's a strikingly simple approach that makes you slap yourself on the forehead and ask why no one thought of this before. 

While Popovich has enjoyed the luxury of having his team healthy and complete for most of the season, Thibodeau has led the Bulls to this point despite missing Carlos Boozer for months, and Joakim Noah for weeks. The Bulls have played few games with a full roster, yet here they are. It's a testament to the ability to not only work around roster holes, but to develop a system which makes no individual player essential to the success of the team. Watch the Bulls. It's not the personnel that makes them an awesome force on defense, it's the wholesale commitment to the act. There's no uncertainty when they trap the ball-handler on the wing off the pick and roll, no hesitation when the weak-side defender rotates to cut off perimeter penetration. There's confidence, assurance, belief in their teammates, in the system, in their success. 

Coach of the Year is a regular season award. To try and judge these two based on their playoff prospects is short-sighted and complicated. Instead, it comes down to which team has been more impressive with the hand they've been dealt. And considering the cards and how he's played them, there can be no doubt. Tom Thibodeau is the 2010-2011 NBA Coach of the Year.

Posted on: March 27, 2011 4:32 pm
Edited on: April 12, 2011 4:18 pm

Road to the Finals: San Antonio Spurs

Assuming they get Tim Duncan back healthy, the Spurs are eying a Western Conference Finals date with the Los Angeles Lakers. Posted by Ben Golliver.


When the San Antonio Spurs contingent descended upon All-Star Weekend back in February, their message was unanimous: Our luck avoiding injuries has been incredible, and we just hope it lasts. “Honest to God, you look over your shoulder thinking something’s got to happen,” coach Gregg Popovich joked to reporters in Los Angeles.

Well, something did happen. Franchise big man Tim Duncan, the engine of more than a decade of Spurs dominance, severely sprained his ankle last week. For the team with the league’s best record, Duncan’s absence has prompted a total reevaluation. Point guard Tony Parker summed it up recently, telling the San Antonio News Express that San Antonio is “not going anywhere in the playoffs without him.” That, evaluation, of course, is representative of the perputally high standards in San Antonio, one of the rare NBA cities where advancing to the second round of the playoffs isn't a triumph. 

Parker’s statement made it clear, if it wasn't already, that San Antonio has sky-high internal expectations this season. As they should. Despite a two-game losing streak, the Spurs possess a league-best 57-15 record, a stunning figure given the lack of name players complementing the longtime core trio of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili

The Spurs have succeeded by owning the fundamentals and mastering the basics with a consistency that’s unrivaled in today’s pro game. They move the ball brilliantly and unselfishly, confidently and purposefully. They move without the ball aggressively and always with the team concept in mind. Their perimeter players are extremely disciplined, feasting on the clean looks created by the ball movement and Parker’s ability to probe defenses off the dribble (17.4 points and 6.6 assists a game). The Spurs can still dump it in to Duncan (13.3 points and 9.0 rebounds per game) and expect him to deliver when it matters and Ginobili remains one of the game's best late-game decision-makers (18.0 points and 5.0 assists). Together, it’s made for the league’s second most efficient offense through Sunday, a unit that scores more points per possession than both the star-laden Miami Heat and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. This is "fives fingers equals a fist" offense at its best.

Road To The Finals

Defensively, San Antonio is the king of getting your hopes up on paper: Duncan’s lost a half-step, power forward DeJuan Blair is undersized, wing Richard Jefferson is past his prime, and Matt Bonner is Matt Bonner. And yet their commitment to team defense, their uncanny ability to take away their opponents’ first option, and their opportunistic ability to push out in transition off turnovers have combined to make this a nearly elite defensive unit that's earned respect around the league, even in Duncan's absence. “They do a good job of rotating. Just that experience that they have, they have won a lot of championships, they know how to adjust in-game really well," Trail Blazers guard Brandon Roy said before Friday night's game against San Antonio in Portland.

The juggernaut has just one real weakness: interior depth. A big man rotation of Duncan (28 minutes per game), Blair (21.8 minutes per game), Bonner (21.6 minutes per game), veteran forward Antonio McDyess (18.5 minutes per game) and promising but minimally used center Tiago Splitter (12.0 minutes per game) is solid but not superb. The Spurs are only slightly above average at clearing the defensive boards and they ask their wings and guards to rebound more than they would probably like. It's worth noting that Duncan will almost certainly see his minutes ramp up significantly in the post-season, which could change things a bit.

Regardless, the surest way for a team to send San Antonio home is to pound the paint, crash the boards and limit turnovers, extracting the maximum efficiency from each offensive possession by forcing San Antonio’s starting bigs to play with fouls and work tirelessly on the defensive glass. Surveying San Antonio’s most likely first round opponents – the New Orleans Hornets, Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies – none figures to have the ability to do that, at least on paper.

The Hornets lost their star forward and leading scorer David West to a season-ending ACL injury this week, leaving recently backup forward Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor, never a true go-to scoring option, to pick up the interior slack. Given San Antonio’s ability to throw multiple defensive looks at Chris Paul and New Orleans’ lack of a bench, a series between the two teams very well could end in a sweep.

The hard-charging Houston Rockets, winners of five straight, are looking to salvage their season by making a nice post-deadline run. Guard Kyle Lowry is leading the way with his strong recent play, but the Rockets would almost certainly be exposed as fool’s gold if they do manage to sneak into the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed. Houston is really an off-brand version of the Spurs, a cut below San Antonio in every way, even their strengths. They have very efficient guard play, but not as good as San Antonio’s. They can put up points, but not with the same efficiency as San Antonio. They are hurting on the inside even more than the Spurs and their overall team defense suffers for it. This would likely be another cakewalk for the favorite.

San Antonio’s least favorable first round matchup on paper is the team that they are most likely to face: their Sunday night opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies.   Memphis sports an excellent scoring, offensive rebounding and foul-drawing duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and the pair will do damage against the Spurs, the only question is how much. But Popovich has made a career out of chewing up and spitting out teams that aren’t ready for the big stage. I already feel sorry for Mike Conley, a talented point guard but one with no playoff experience. He has no idea – he simply can’t know – what’s about to hit him when the post-season begins. The Grizzlies, a slightly below average offense thsi season, are also entering the playoffs without star wing Rudy Gay, a versatile scorer who would be critical to freeing up Randolph and Gasol inside. Without Gay, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to envision the Grizzlies keeping up.

As Parked noted, though, clocking one of the West’s weaker sisters is not going to be enough for the Spurs. Their road to the Finals will go through whichever team emerges from a first round series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets. Those are two talented, motivated, athletic, balanced teams, and the winner of that series will be riding a wave of confidence into Texas. San Antonio is 33-3 at home on the season, another league-best figure, a fact that will weigh heavily in the second round, as both the Thunder and Nuggets are solid at home in front of their excited crowds. Oklahoma City, newly balanced with the addition of Kendrick Perkins, figures to be the tougher match-up because their elite skill level and athleticism will stress and stretch San Antonio’s older players. Denver, though, possesses the one offense in the league that is more efficient than San Antonio’s and George Karl is as good a match for Popovich as there is in the NBA. Neither will be an easy draw and both series have a solid chance of going six, if not seven games.

Should the Spurs weather that tough second round they will almost certainly have to go through the team that presents the greatest set of challenges: the Los Angeles Lakers. With an interior trio of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, the Lakers are versatile, long, athletic and immensely talented, a nightmare group that will require San Antonio to regularly provide interior help, scrambling their defense. Both Parker and George Hill are tough match-ups for the Lakers, and would likely have a field day, but L.A.’s wing defenders are experienced and physical enough to make life significantly more difficult for San Antonio’s tertiary perimeter players. Stripping away the hype, not much separates Kobe Bryant and Manu Ginobili these days, and both have the ability to take and make game-winners in front of a hostile crowd on the road, a rare commodity in the NBA.

If the Lakers played with San Antonio’s discipline and consistency, a series between the two teams would be no contest. As it stands, though, the West’s top two teams are on a crash course for an entertaining, drag-out Western Conference Finals. Assuming San Antonio gets Duncan back healthy -- and they do expect him back in time for the start of the playoffs -- they’ve got a legit shot at dethroning the reigning champs.

Posted on: March 23, 2011 11:15 pm
Edited on: March 23, 2011 11:26 pm

Popovich: Tim Duncan will be ready for playoffs

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says Tim Duncan will be ready to play in the playoffs. Posted by Ben Golliver. tim-duncan

Is it possible the San Antonio Spurs big man Tim Duncan isn't injured as badly as we all feared?

When news of Duncan's ankle sprain first broke, the first timeline was set at roughly 2-3 weeks, with additional time away from the court seen as a possibility once an MRI revealed that the sprain was between a grade one and a grade two. 

On Wednesday, MySanAntonio.com reported that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich put an unofficial timeline on Duncan's absence, suggesting that he might miss "four or five games" and sending a reassuring message that Duncan would be ready in time for the playoffs, which begin in roughly one month.
Coach Gregg Popovich said Wednesday he expects to have  the two-time MVP back in time for the start of the playoffs. “Once he gets back on the court in a couple of days, we’ll be able to tell more,” Popovich said. “But four or five games for sure.”
Asked again before tonight’s game if team doctors had given him any indication Duncan might not be ready for the start of the playoffs, Popovich was adamant. “No, no, no,” he said.
If Duncan were to miss five games, he would actually only sit through the rest of March, as the Spurs have a busy week this week, facing the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday, the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday, the Blazers again on Monday and the Boston Celtics next Thursday. A four-game absence would see Duncan back on the court for the Celtics game on March 31. A five-game absence would set his return for April 1 against the Houston Rockets.

The Spurs, who carried a league-best 57-13 record into Wednesday night action, conclude their regular season schedule on April 13 against the Phoenix Suns. All that really matters for the Spurs is the playoffs, however, and it sounds like Duncan will meet that timeline with plenty of room to spare.
Posted on: March 22, 2011 1:54 am

Did the Spurs peak too early?

Tim Duncan is out for a while, but is that the least of the Spurs' problems? 
Posted by Matt Moore

It seems like everything's fine in Spurs World. Sure there were a few losses to the Heat and Lakers, but they've been blasting teams just the same. They're going to finish with well over 60 wins. They blasted the Warriors into smithereens on Monday night by 15. All's well with San Antonio, and it's just a matter of resting up and getting ready for the playoffs. 

Yeah, about that. 

Let's start with the news that Tim Duncan will be out for a "while" according to the always-effusive Gregg Popovich after spraining his ankle. X-rays were negative for Duncan's ankle but the fact remains that the Spurs will be finishing the season, save possibly a handful of games with their Hall-of-Fame power forward. Then all they have to do is get his conditioning back to NBA-level, re-establish chemistry and rotations that might have shifted with him out and hope that he doesn't suffer any more trouble in a 34-year-old body that's played 1,745 games in its career. 

But that's not the real issue. Duncan's had physical problems before, nearly every season. The real question is whether this Spurs team peaked too early. 

The winner of the NBA championship is rarely the best team the entire season. It is often times the team that was the best, consistently, throughout the course of the season. But there are peaks and valleys. The Lakers and Celtics both struggled in the second half of last season. We're not talking "didn't look like world-beaters." We're talking "didn't look like Bobcat-beaters." But they always do find their groove at the right time, which is, you know, the playoffs. Otherwise they wouldn't be champions. The Celtics managed to instantly manifest themselves as contenders in the playoffs. The Lakers showed late-season signs of life before rolling over the West on their way to the title. The Spurs? They looked nigh-on unbeatable in December, but as the season progresses, they seem to be limping to the start of the second season. And I'm not just talking Duncan's ankle. 

For example, the Spurs have been 24-12 this season against playoff teams. But they are just 5-5 in their last 10 games against playoff teams. In their last eight games against playoff teams, they have a negative efficiency differential (they are being outscored by their playoff opponents per 100 possessions). Perhaps you're thinking that's just the result of the 110-80 loss to the Heat. But in reality, in those last eight playoff matchups, they had a negative efficiency differential in four of the contest. When they were successful, they outscored their opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions. When they were not, they were outscored by 19.7 points. Here, try this one. Let's throw out both Heat games, one a dominant Spurs laugher and the other an embarrassing Heat blowout. The result is that in their last six games against playoff opponents non-Heat, when they win, they outscore the other team by 6.1 points per 100 possessions. When they lose, they are beaten by 15.5 points per 100 points. 

But those are just numbers, really. They can be spun anyway, and who cares if the Spurs haven't been dominant in what is customarily a coasting period. But the same concerns are present in their play. The Spurs have taken their high-octane offense, good-not-elite defense approach as far as they can, and now have to become something else. Instantly. A team which features George Hill, still relatively inexperienced, and DeJuan Blair often starting and Matt Bonner as their fourth big in the rotation has to become a defensive stalwart. This team is often spoken of as if it resembles those championship teams, but the makeup is wholly different outside of Duncan, Popovich, Ginobili and Parker. The core is the same, sure, but one of the central structures of those teams was a series of veteran wing defenders. Those wing defenders have been replaced by a core of bigs including Bonner, the aging aged Antonio McDyess, and the inexperienced Tiago Splitter, still working his way into the rotation.

The Spurs are obviously a contender for the NBA championship. You can't win that many games and not be one. But at some point, the question has to be raised whether they peaked sometime in the NBA's hidden months or whether they have that extra gear that defines championship teams. It would be some sort of bizarre twist of fate if the best regular season team of the Popovich era was also unprepared for the postseason. That would be interesting, humorous, and it is definitely not something you want to bet on. But the question is there. 
Posted on: March 15, 2011 2:33 am
Edited on: March 15, 2011 2:39 am

Spurs' defensive woes a sign of the times

The Spurs get trounced in a meaningless regular season game against the Heat, but does it bely a concerning trend regarding their defense?
Posted by Matt Moore

Somewhere, in the bottom of his cold, unfeeling heart, Gregg Popovich knows what the loss to the Heat represents. In the grand scheme of things, it's a blip, a bump in the road, nothing to be concerned about. The team's still 54-12, still the best team in the league, still a juggernaut and a near-lock for homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Popovich will remain a big picture guy, never overreacting to a single game of the regular season. But somwehere he knows the really concerning thing to take away from the Spurs' 110-80 loss to the Heat Monday night. 

The Spurs entered Monday night 7th in the league at defensive efficiency (which estimates points per 100 possessions, removing the element of pace and providing a more true image of defensive productivity). That's not as good as they typically are, but it's still a top ten mark. But they also entered Monday night's game against Miami having averaged giving up 102 points per game in March, as opposed to their typical mark of 97. Their season defensive efficiency has been a solid 101.1. In March? The Spurs have averaged a 108.5 defensive efficiency, including marks of 117 to Memphis, 112 to the Lakers, 114 to Detroit,and the abomination, a 122 mark to the Heat. For reference, the worst team in the league, the Cleveland Cavaliers, average a 110 defensive efficiency. So in a supremely small sample, this month the Spurs are surrendering a defensive efficiency that would be the worst in the league if spread over the season. Looking at the Spurs' defensive efforts per game, you'll notice some solid efforts betrayed by huge breakdowns, with a concerning increase as of late. 

Now, that's a small sample size to consider, but given that the Spurs have not played brilliant defense all year, it's got to be concerning for Popovich. This is especially true when you look at the kind of style that has led the Spurs' huge winning percentage. They've been an offensive juggernaut, with one of the best marks in the league. They've been balanced, they've been consistent, they've been impressive. But beneath it is the defense, the mark that's always held the Spurs up in the playoffs, even when their regular season success was limited. The Spurs have always won championships with stellar defense and deliberate, efficient offense. This season, when they've had the most regular season success in team history, it's been their offense propelling them forward while their defense has been quietly inconsistent. What's more, their defense is trending slightly worse as the season goes on. As teams are finding their playoff gears, the Spurs are giving up some of their worst defensive efforts of the season. In the chart below, I found the differential for the past month, starting with the February 17th game against the Bulls, for the Spurs defensive efficiency against their season average of 101.1. So for example, they surrendered a 122 efficiency against the Heat (shudder), so I subtracted the Spurs' season average of 101.1 from 122 to find the difference between what the Spurs normally do, and what they've done this month. The results are stunning.

If you're not big on the whole numbers vibe, essentially the Spurs have only performed at or better than their season defensive average three out of their past twelve games. Even in the first romp against the Heat, the Spurs allowed their average of 101 points per 100 possessions. In three of those games, against playoff teams in L.A., Memphis, and Miami, the Heat have allowed more than 15 points more per 100 possessions in those games. That's bad. 

Against the Lakers a week ago, it was their positional physical disadvantages that were prominent. DeJuan Blair, Antonio McDyess, and Matt Bonner were helpless to keep the Lakers off the glass, and it was the length of L.A. that gave them the advantage. Conversely Monday against the Heat, it was positional skill matchups that aided the Heat. George Hill was isolated in space against Dwyane Wade, as the Heat deliberately forced the double then started their perimeter rotations, finding open threes. Then when Matt Bonnner was inserted and placed against Chris Bosh, the Heat ran that mismatch into the ground, and it resulted in point after point. When Popovich was forced to switch Blair onto Bosh putting Bonner on Joel Anthony, the Heat ran a play for Joel Anthony... let me restate that one more time for emphasis... the Heat ran a play for Joel Anthony that resulted in an open dunk. Bonner's arguably the best bench three-point shooter in the league, but he's a nightmare for the Spurs defensively, and it showed. 

So now the Spurs try and forget about this loss, shrug it off as "one of those games," focus on the huge win they had two weeks ago against the same team and keep pushing forward. But as their fans continue to wonder why they don't receive as much respect as other star-laden teams, this game should serve as a notice. Previous years it was simply a matter of overlooking a great team that often proved everyone wrong by winning championships. But this team has an issue on defense, and if they don't find the extra gear by the time the playoffs roll around, they could be in a world of hurt and fall short once again of the fifth title for Duncan's Spurs. 

(All per-game defensive efficiencies courtesy of HoopData.com. Basketball-Reference.com calculates defensive efficiency using a slightly different formula, as a result, the Spurs' defensive efficiency season average is calculated at a slightly higher 104.3. The effect would be standardized across the different per-game efficiencies, meaning the impact would be the same, but it should be mentioned there is a differential there.)
Posted on: February 19, 2011 5:50 pm
Edited on: February 19, 2011 5:51 pm

NBA All-Star Weekend: Gregg Popovich quotes

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is known for his wittiness, and he didn't disappoint during Friday's media availability for the 2011 NBA All-Star Game. Posted by Ben Golliver.


Nobody delivers a barb and drops knowledge quite like San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, and he was in fine form on Friday during his All-Star media availability. Popovich is coaching the Western Conference All-Star team and took questions on a variety of subjects. Here's a quick collection of the Top Pop quotes.

On his team's 46-10 start, the best record in the league:

"You’d have to ask Manu [Ginobili]. It’s his fault. He came to training camp and said we’ve got to have a quicker start. And I said, 'OK, how?' Different drills? What does that mean? I said, 'If you want a quicker start: shoot better, go rebound more, that kind of thing. I guess he took me seriously."

On his team's recent "Rodeo Roadtrip":

"We were lost in space for nine games. Hopefully none of the players have a feeling of accomplishment. There are a lot of good basketball teams, a lot of games to be played."

On Kevin Garnett's antics: 

"I think Kevin is really unique in that regard. He really focuses on pumping himself up. It’s important to his game to talk to himself, to make sure that when he steps on the court it’s the most important thing in his life for those 48 minutes.

"Maybe it’s a function of age, but it’s …  amusing would be the wrong word because that would be too flippant. But it’s intriguing and interesting and any coach would love a player to be as focused as Kevin is."

On his team's excellent health so far this season: 

"We realize full well that one of the biggest contributing factors to our record is that we’ve been healthy. You look at the top 3 or 4 teams in the East and the top 3 or 4 teams in the West they’ve all had injuries. Honest to God, you look over your shoulder thinking something’s got to happen." 

On Phil Jackson's expected retirement: 

"Phil would be missed if he decided not to coach again. I don’t pretend to understand what people are going to do or not do, I think it’s good for the league when guys like that are there. It’s good for all of us for all of the obvious reasons."

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com