After jumping out to an exceptional 25-3 mark to start the season, the San Antonio Spurs are once again up there with the NBA’s elite. As such, their game against the rebuilt Orlando Magic provided an opportunity for the Spurs to examine how they measure up with another fringe title contender under adverse conditions—a road game as a third contest in four nights.
That the Spurs lost 123-101 isn’t at all damning in and of itself. However, there were several troubling aspects the game presented that may require a roster tweak as the year progresses. Let’s examine the game to see what San Antonio did and didn't do well.
While the Spurs have implemented a much-ballyhooed new motion offense, they still have the same principles as their previous offenses—screen/rolls for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, post-ups for Tim Duncan, iso’s and drive-and-kicks for Parker, Ginobili, and Richard Jefferson, screen/fades involving Matt Bonner—with a few new wrinkles. The Spurs liked to have one of their post players have the ball at the high post with a strong-side perimeter player receiving a brush screen before executing a handoff/roll with the ball handler. If this doesn’t happen, a weak side perimeter player will curl off a weak-side brush screen and get the ball at the perimeter, continuing into a handoff/roll, screen/roll, or isolation at the top.
This off-ball action gets San Antonio’s perimeter players on the move before executing their various two-man games, a nice tweak that puts a bit more pressure on opposing defenders than San Antonio’s double and triple or chase screen/roll series of the recent past. The Spurs also ran various zipper and pin down action to free up Ginobili in the middle of the floor, and some baseline cut/fades and baseline screens for their point guards and Jefferson.
For the most part, San Antonio’s offense generated open looks throughout the duration, mostly because of Ginobili’s brilliant passing. Whether off curls, isolations, or two-man games, Ginobili was always able to get penetration and force Orlando’s defense into rotation, freeing up open three point shooters throughout the game. If the Magic zoned the area in a two-man game, pocket bounce passes would free up long jumpers, and a ripped one-handed pass to a cutting Matt Bonner in traffic resulted in the best pass of all.
His six assists were mitigated by two turnovers—an alert rotation by Ryan Anderson intercepted a pass intended for Ducan, and an accurate pass to Antonio McDyess was bobbled out of bounds with the turnover credited to Ginobili.
However, Ginobili—and most of the Spurs—were stymied when trying to finish at the rim because of ferocious interior defense by the Magic. He missed all four of his attempts at the basket.
His teammates likewise found the going difficult, only making 19 of 41 attempts inside the paint, a horrendous ratio.
Tim Duncan posted up eight times, six against Dwight Howard, twice against Brandon Bass. Against Howard, he made an out-pass that led to a missed Richard Jefferson three, while only converting two of his six shots at the basket (one of his posts was a missed runner that led to a tip-in), a ratio of four points on six possessions. He made one of his two attempts against Brandon Bass, for two more points on two possessions. Overall, against Orlando, Duncan post ups only resulted in six points in eight possessions, with zero free throws drawn, a sure sign that Duncan’s once prodigious post talents are no longer able to dominate elite post defenders.
As always, Duncan made several crisp passes, was active on the offensive glass, and converted a nifty layup on a roll to the hoop, but he’s becoming increasingly ineffective in creating his own offense. Without his stability around the hoop, the Spurs become an increasingly perimeter oriented team. On the other hand, in the playoffs, Duncan won’t have to deal with third game in four nights scenarios allowing him to be fresher, and somewhat more explosive in the postseason. Still, it is a concern that San Antonio’s offense won’t be able to operate from the inside out come the postseason.
Aside from forcing a transition floater in double coverage 10-feet from the hoop, Tony Parker was aggressive, taking nine shots in the first quarter, plus a pair of free throws, as he tried to set a tone of the Spurs being unafraid to attack the basket. He also knocked down half of his six jumpers, meaning he displayed both the speed to get to the basket, and the jump shooting to punish defenses from sagging off or ignoring him.
Richard Jefferson is simply playing with more aggressiveness in attacking off the bounce, and especially shooting when he’s open. If he didn’t have a good game—4-11 FG, 2-5 3FG, 10 PTS—he’s having a career season knocking down his threes.
DeJuan Blair’s lack of size and elevation left him extremely vulnerable to Orlando’s interior defense, as he only converted four of his 10 shots inside the paint. Many of his misses came in the fourth quarter when Dwight Howard wasn’t on the floor.
Antonio McDyess bobbled a pass, clanged a jump shot off the backboard, and was an absolute non-factor.
Matt Bonner—4-6 FG, 1-3 3FG, 1-1 FT, 10 PTS—shot the ball well with his assortment of catapulted threes and pull-up springers. He even converted a terrific layup, count it, plus the foul, on a well-timed cut and an exceptional pass from Ginobili. Bonner is also a good decision maker triggering San Antonio’s handoff/fade game, as he virtually always fades after his screens to space the floor, rather than cut to the basket. San Antonio’s spacing is always at its best with Bonner in the game rather than Blair or McDyess.
Gary Neal is a player. He was fearless in attacking the teeth of Orlando’s defense, and sank a trio of three-pointers. He wasn’t great at penetrating on his own though, which prevented him from getting separation from his defender to create on his own. As such, his best strength is his three-point shooting, playing off of Ginobili, Parker, Jefferson, and when he returns, George Hill.
Tiago Splitter still has a ways to go before he becomes a trusted, full-time member of San Antonio’s rotation, though his offense is further along than his defense. He beat Ryan Anderson on a drive from the elbow to the basket, and also drove on Brandon Bass for a score. He has poor court vision though, and sets flimsy screens as he leans the NBA game.
Chris Quinn is slow, soft, and a mediocre shooter. He didn’t turn the ball over in 24 minutes, which makes him a respectable third string point guard.
San Antonio’s defense was much worse than its offense for a variety of reasons. For starters, the Spurs displayed awful court balance. Often times, a player would shoot or penetrate from the top of the key with the players in the corner not running back to balance the court. Gary Neal, Richard Jefferson, and Tony Parker were guilty of this transgression. Other times, San Antonio would try to chase down a long rebound, fail to secure it, and watch as the Magic created numbers advantages early in the shot clock.
San Antonio’s secondary break defense was even worse as the Spurs were often late recognizing shooters spotting up in transition.
In the halfcourt, San Antonio had trouble defending the paint. Duncan was posted by Howard five times, allowing three baskets and six points in those five possessions as he was physically overwhelmed by Howard. Antonio McDyess fared even worse, surrounding two baskets in three possessions.
On screen/rolls, the Spurs generally had the player defending the screen sag back, and the player defending the ball-handler go over the top to force the Magic to shoot mid-range jumpers. This tactic backfired because Gilbert Arenas, Jameer Nelson, and Jason Richardson were each able to split the nets from about 16 feet out.
It also backfired because Duncan, McDyess, Bonner, and Blair aren’t players who will chase ball-handlers and block their shots. Because of this, penetration often forced San Antonio into rotations, which for the most part the Spurs were on time with. However, the resulting mismatches—Parker on Richardson, Neal on Hedo Turkoglu—Quinn on Howard, Jefferson on Bass—proved disastrous.
Individually, San Antonio’s defense was adequate against their primary responsibilities, but again, transition defense and rotations resulted in the Spurs spending too many possessions in mismatches.
When they weren’t in mismatches, Ginobili was getting stuck on several screens, but forced a Richardson miss in the post, plus blocked a jumper.
Parker wasn’t attacked too often by Nelson, but Quinn and Neal were neutralized by Agent 0.
Jefferson worked hard, but had Jefferson drive past him for a short jumper, Turkoglu step back from him for a long-jumper, and Bass shoot over him for a mid-range jumper.
San Antonio suffered from poor screen/defense the entire game. Wing screen/rolls involving Bass were open the entire game as San Antonio’s bigs tried to show but couldn’t recover.
Bonner executed a poor hedge and was late or inadequate on several rotations, though he was decent when isolated by Bass. Blair gave up too much room to perimeter shooters and was too short to provide effective defense at the basket.
Splitter was lost as a defender, providing late help on interior rotations, often being late recovering after defending screens, losing body contact with Dwight Howard twice for layups, doing a poor job of zoning the paint on screen/rolls, and generally playing like a rookie.
Most of the mistakes made in the Magic game are isolated ones and should be corrected for the postseason. The court balance and transition defense should be shorn up, while more preparation time would allow the Spurs more time to gameplan for a challenging team like the retooled Magic.
San Antonio’s perimeter offense is potent, and if Duncan is able to play consistently well against elite playoff defenses, then the Spurs will field an offense capable of winning a title.
Their defense is another story though. San Antonio doesn’t have the defensive range of teams like Boston, Dallas, Miami and the Lakers, who each have long athletic power forwards who are already exceptional help-and-recovering defenders who can defend the post (Kevin Garnett, Tyson Chandler, Lamar Odom), or could become that caliber of defender by the end of the season (Chris Bosh).
The Spurs defense is smart, and the perimeter defense should hold up, but there’s a fundamental lack of athleticism that showed against the Magic and will be near-impossible to be improved internally.
Also, the Spurs perimeter defenders aren’t as exceptionally versatile and interchangeable as some other elite defenses.
It’s this aspect that has me pegging the Spurs ultimately as the third best team in the West behind the Mavericks, and a peak Lakers team.
In one way, the Spurs are the antithesis of their middle-decade teams, which were also powerful, but achieved their success behind a ubiquitous, versatile defense, and an effective, but relatively simplistic offense. Now the Spurs boast an explosive, relentless offense, and an effective, but relatively limited defense and have become the team that would routinely fall to middle-decade San Antonio squads during the playoffs.
Fortunately for the Spurs, many pillars of their middle-decade title teams still hold up today—Popovich’s genius, Ginobili’s brilliance and big-time shot-making, and the dedication and determination to play smart, correct basketball.