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Monday, March 31, 2008

They're Baaack: "Old, Boring" Spurs Win Seventh Straight Game

For most of this season, talk about the Western Conference has focused on Chris Paul and the surprising New Orleans Hornets, Houston's 22 game winning streak, the reemergence of the Lakers as a contender and the arrival of Shaquille O'Neal in Phoenix--but look who owns the league's best current winning streak (seven games) and has moved into a virtual tie with the Hornets for first place in the Western Conference: none other than the "old, boring" defending champion San Antonio Spurs, who blew out the Rockets 109-88 on Sunday. The Spurs' defense is in playoff mode after a brief midseason siesta; they held the Rockets to .402 field goal shooting, including a 5-22 effort from Tracy McGrady, who finished with just 13 points.

You know that the playoffs are nearing when the Spurs' veteran role players start coming out of hibernation: Michael Finley, who is shooting a career low .405 from the field this season but has been on a tear recently, scored 22 points on 9-13 shooting and Kurt Thomas contributed 10 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes. Presumably, Robert Horry will be making an appearance soon. This is why it is a mistake to evaluate the talent on a team's roster based purely on stats. Finley, Thomas and Horry have put up numbers this year that are nothing to write home about but I'd trust any of them in a seventh game of a playoff series much more than I would trust players who have similar roles (in terms of regular season minutes played) on other contending teams. The Spurs under Coach Gregg Popovich are absolute masters at managing a season segment by segment so that they are in peak form come playoff time; they don't get too high after wins or too low after losses. Popovich carefully monitors the minutes of his star players and he has a perfect sense of when his team needs a pat on the rear and when his team needs a kick in the rear.

The Spurs will be contenders as long as Tim Duncan is healthy and productive. He is the team's anchor on both offense on defense. He had a quiet game versus Houston (13 points, six rebounds in 29 minutes) but his ability to consistently score in the low post opens up opportunities not only for the team's role players but also for fellow stars Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The full extent of his defensive impact is not understood by average fans. Obviously, Duncan is one of the league's best rebounders and shot blockers but his mobility and length enable him to effectively cover a lot of ground. During last year's NBA Finals, Bruce Bowen conceded the outside jumper to LeBron James but whenever James tried to drive Bowen angled him directly toward Duncan, who served as a giant moat in front of the hoop, denying access. If the NBA kept a stat for "intimidated shots" then Duncan probably would rank first; many times each game opposing players drive to the hoop but are forced to pass the ball back out due to Duncan's presence. That means that the perimeter defenders can aggressively contest shots without worrying about being beaten.

So far, the Spurs have not reached the point where their advanced collective age is a handicap; their veteran wiles more than compensate for the mileage on their bodies. The charge that they are boring is an odd one to say the least. Isn't it exciting to annually contend for championships? Look at the flip side: how exciting is it to be a fan of the Knicks, the Heat, the Sonics or the Grizzlies? Duncan may have a calm demeanor but he scores, rebounds, blocks shots and passes. Ginobili and Parker are two of the quickest and most exciting guards in the NBA. Anyone who has been sleeping on the Spurs will receive a rude awakening once the playoffs begin.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:43 AM



At Tuesday, April 01, 2008 9:23:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you forgot to add "they try to finish instead of trying to draw fouls"

sure, manu flops, but when they need a basket, he drives, takes the hit, and tries to finish. he doesn't just chuck it up in the air, praying for a foul. as frail as parker seems to be, he tries to finish too (and he does a great job). I think this is also a good indicator of how well a team performs when things start to go wrong. manu seems to perform better after taking a big hit, while bowen's jumpshot improves when he can work himself into a frothy lather hounding a top scorer.

i seem to remember reading something about phil jackson saying something like, once shaq gets a couple of quick fouls, he's even more likely to pick up a few more...while pop could afford to play duncan with foul trouble because he knows how to avoid it.

do any teams/players stick out in these areas?


At Tuesday, April 01, 2008 2:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are right about Manu and Parker being excellent finishers who are good at seeking out contact when they drive.

In my March 23, 2008 post titled "Suns Shoot Down Rockets," I called Shaq a "streak fouler" because he seems to be collecting fouls in bunches, just like a streak shooter can make shots in bunches.

In general, I think that the better players are better at playing with fouls but a cynic would say that refs are reluctant to call fouls on star players who are in foul trouble. Obviously, it is more challenging for players who play in the post or perimeter players who have big defensive responsibilities to play when they get in foul trouble.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of any specific players who excel at playing while they are in foul trouble.

At Tuesday, April 01, 2008 7:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

so why is shaq such a "streak fouler"?
i don't think fatigue, as you mentioned, is the only issue since he did seem to have these problems even when he was young and healthy.
is it because teams are aware of this fact, and drive at him harder? or does it have more to do with him playing on eggshells and being more tentative on defense?
now that you mention it, if a star player knows that the refs are reluctant to call his 5th or 6th foul, wouldn't that give him more license to be more aggressive?


At Wednesday, April 02, 2008 6:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Shaq is a "streak fouler" for a couple reasons in addition to the one that you mentioned about teams driving the ball at him when he is in foul trouble:

1) He is in constant jeopardy of being called for offensive fouls because of the way that he swings his elbow into the defender's chest. He used to get away with this move more frequently than he does now; he also used to have a drop step move during which he did not bull through people but I don't think he is quick enough to do that anymore--certainly not on a regular basis.

2) His lateral mobility on defense was never great and has gotten worse with age, so he has a tendency to arrive a bit late (and with great force) as a help defender.

Basically, Shaq's game does not have a lot of finesse to it, so once he starts picking up fouls in a game he does not have a "plan b" on offense or defense to avoid further foul difficulties.

As for star players being more aggressive due to being granted some leeway, I think that does happen in some situations, but probably more so when the foul trouble consists of four fouls as opposed to having five fouls (and thus being just one short of disqualification); it's risky to be overly aggressive with five fouls.


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