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Friday, May 09, 2008

The Spurs Aren't Dead Yet

In recent days it seems like everyone has come not to praise the San Antonio Spurs but to bury them but their 110-99 game three win over the New Orleans Hornets on Thursday suggested that such funeral plans are very premature. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich resorted to his tried and true tactic whenever things look dire for his team: he shifted Manu Ginobili from the bench to the starting lineup, changing the matchups and rotations for both teams. Ginobili finished with 31 points, six assists and four rebounds and his production proved to be the X factor in a game in which most of the other main players performed at their expected levels. Tony Parker had 31 points and 11 assists, while Tim Duncan had a lot more impact than his 16 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and four blocked shots might suggest. His game-high +15 plus/minus number (five better than Parker's and 10 better than Ginobili's) hints at the importance of his contributions: Duncan drew double-teams that opened up driving lanes and shot opportunities for his speedy sidekicks and on defense he protected the paint well.

Chris Paul once again put up awesome numbers (35 points, nine assists, 15-25 field goal shooting, one turnover), David West had a double double (23 points, 12 rebounds, three blocked shots) and Tyson Chandler did the dirty work in the paint (12 points, eight rebounds, 5-5 field goal shooting) but no other Hornets reached double figures in points and New Orleans shot just 2-11 from three point range after shooting 14-27 from long distance while winning the first two games of the series. Paul really is remarkable--he shoots a good percentage, makes uncanny passes, rarely turns the ball over and does not have to be hidden like a fugitive from justice at the defensive end of the court. That said, this game fits into the blueprint that I have described for how the Spurs can beat the Hornets: a New Orleans opponent cannot live with Paul scoring more than 30 points and having more than 15 assists and it may not be possible to stop him from reaching one of those totals, so it makes sense to stay at home on West, Chandler and the shooters in order to cut down on Paul's assists and force him to be a big time scorer. That is not to say that Paul is not capable of scoring 30-plus points while shooting a good percentage but it will take at least 85 points to win a game in this series, so if a single-covered Paul scores 35 then the other players have to find a way to score at least 50 without getting easy dunks and wide open jumpers. The other thing that is great about this approach is that Paul is a pass-first player by nature and his team's success is built around his passing skills, so he will not be comfortable taking a lot of shots game after game and his teammates will not be used to having to work harder to create their own shots. In the first half, Paul had 18 points and six assists while shooting 8-12 from the field; that 36-12 pace was a bit too much and the Spurs trailed 56-54 even after scoring five points in the last two seconds of the half. In the second half, Paul had 17 points and three assists while shooting 7-13 from the field; that 34-6 pace is just what the doctor ordered and the Spurs pulled away to claim the win. In the fourth quarter, Paul scored six points on 3-7 shooting and he only had one assist as the Spurs outscored the Hornets 27-21.

I'm not saying that Paul had a bad game or that his 15-25 shooting hurt the team--far from it: Paul had a great game. However, since it does not seem possible to shut down Paul completely it makes more sense for the Spurs to stay at home on the other players as opposed to trapping Paul; when Dallas trapped Paul in the first round he made the Mavs look silly by splitting the traps and then scoring or passing at will. As long as the lone defender on Paul makes him work throughout the game then the Spurs can live with him shooting 25 times, even if he shoots a good percentage--and even if his overall percentage is good he may miss more shots than usual down the stretch because he is not accustomed to shooting that much in a game. The Hornets should counter this approach by using a lot of pick and roll plays to force the Spurs to have to switch, thus creating mismatches and/or passing angles for Paul. The Hornets should also use screens away from the ball to free up their shooters, Peja Stojakovic and Morris Peterson. Stojakovic had just eight points on 2-7 field goal shooting, while Peterson scored three points on 1-3 field goal shooting; Stojakovic scored 47 points in the first two games of the series, while Peterson scored 20 points on 8-10 field goal shooting.

This does not specifically relate to game three but one of the most amusing sidebar stories in this series involves Popovich answering some of the "interesting" questions that he is asked by sideline reporters during the games and by various members of the media in his postgame press conferences. "Just don't ask me stupid questions and we'll be OK" is Popovich's mantra regarding the media. Reporters ask stupid questions all the time and most coaches simply resort to answering with bland cliches--but if you ask Popovich a stupid question, his response leaves little doubt about exactly how stupid it really was, as USA Today's Chris Colston notes.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:46 AM



At Friday, May 09, 2008 5:08:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I thought the Spurs' management made a big mistake last offseason by failing to reload the team with young talent. Perhaps the Spurs adjustments will enable them to make a comeback in this series (I think that is exactly what will happen), but no one can deny that their lack of youth and athleticism is catching up to them. Outside of their big 3, the Spurs' roster is basically filled with wily old veterans barely hanging on to their careers whose services would not be worth much on other teams who don't already have a championship foundation and gameplan in place.

Chris Paul is incredible. I am perhaps most impressed by the way he rarely turns the ball over. Other great point guards who were responsible for as much playmaking as Paul usually had substantially more turnovers. In spite of all this, Paul is not receiving nearly as much praise as Nash did from 2005-2007. Jon Barry isn't labeling him the greatest passer of all time, and Mike Breen doesn't sound like he's overwhelmed in awe every time he attempts a shot or pass.

I too really enjoy Popovich's impatience with stupid questions. I get sick of the lack of insightful questions, which lead to a bunch of generic comments from players.

At Saturday, May 10, 2008 1:24:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

One more thing I was wondering (which is somewhat related to your analysis of the way the Spurs played Paul). Why do you think teams always double Tim Duncan? It seems like the Spurs' offense depends a whole lot on the open shots they get out off Duncan double teams. Yes, Duncan will score more if he is single-covered, but I feel like the Spurs' offense as a whole will lose a lot of what works for it without all those open shots. This is especially puzzling in the case of New Orleans. I can understand why Phoenix always doubled Duncan before they got Shaq, for instance: he would have shot an absurdly high percentage and scored at will. With the trouble Chandler already gives Duncan though, I wonder if it's worth it for the Hornets to constantly double-team him.

At Saturday, May 10, 2008 5:39:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I, too, am puzzled by some of the Spurs' recent offseason moves, particularly when they let Scola go another Western Conf. team. I think that they are going to end up regretting that move for years. That said, even though some of their older players might not fit in anywhere else they still are able (to this point) to get into games and make meaningful contributions. The Spurs clearly prefer to have mature, veteran players who will fit in with their system but at some point they will have to have an infusion of youth, much like Parker and Ginobili revitalized the team after D Rob retired.

I agree with everything that you said about Paul.

In addition to Popovich, Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan have some good responses when they are asked dumb questions.

I'm not sure why the Hornets specifically are doubling Duncan but the general thought is probably that a single-covered Duncan would produce more points per possession than the three point shooters will over the long haul. Like you, I'm not sure that I agree with that premise. Pat Riley and Lenny Wilkens are two great coaches who really loathed using double-teaming defense (though they did it sometimes in certain situations) and I tend to agree that if possible it is best to play straight up man to man, as I am suggesting that the Spurs should do with Paul. One exception to this idea is the "wall off the painted area defense" that the Spurs and Celtics have used effectively against James; that is essentially a man to man (with Posey or Pierce guarding James primarily) defense with zone principles when LeBron gets to certain areas of the court. They double him but it is a soft double to cut off driving and passing lanes as opposed to trying to prevent him from shooting; obviously, they want him to shoot long jumpers.

At Saturday, May 10, 2008 6:20:00 PM, Blogger marcel said...

i belive the spurs are dead the hornets will win game 4 and that is all she wrote for the spurs. they will lose in 5 hornets have better team younger and have the best point and the player who played the best in playoofs.


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