Thank you, Mike Breen, for providing the headline of this post.
It's been nearly a month since I admitted that the Spurs were blowing my mind. I think it's appropriate to say they're playing exceptionally beautiful basketball. How good have they been, and when did it start? Well, since the bench keyed that almost-a-comeback-overtime-loss-that-felt-like-a-win against the Dallas Mavericks on January 29th, theSpurs have acquired an .833 winning percentage while going 11-2 in February, 12-3 in March, and 11-2 so far in April, with dual 11 game winning streaks. Now, after two huge wins over the Los Angeles Lakers in four days, and a current streak of seven wins in a row (all by more than 10 points and four of which were by more than 20 points) I felt the need to make another pitcher of Kool-Aid for the Spurs faithful.
In true mind blown fashion, I'm in no shape to be coherent and composed. This will be choppy and fragmented and I will be unabashedly optimistic and unapologetic in my effusive praise of the team. Your role is to enjoy the Kool-Aid as I promise I haven't spiked it with anything besides stunning videos that highlight otstanding Manu passes from the last couple of weeks. Most of what follows are comments inspired by the most recent win over the Lakers.
Impromptu or Rehearsed?
When the Spurs keep moving the ball to make the defense work for 24 seconds, it's going to be the rare possession that doesn't eventually result in some kind of open look. This happened time and again Friday night, and it makes me smile just thinking about it. When I watch plays unfold naturally, but it seems as though the movements of all five Spurs on the court has been choreographed and practiced until they're perfect -- I just never tire of enjoying that.
Seems like every other time there was a rebound to be had, a couple of Spurs big men ended up on either side of a Laker who was trying to snag the ball but couldn't. After LA dominated San Antonio on the boards in the first of the three games in 10 days, I recalled what my high school basketball coach used to yell, "The key to rebounding is desire. You have to want the ball more than the other guy." While this isn't true for any individual rebound (sometimes the other team simply has superior position), it most certainly applies to entire games. And since Andrew Bynum went
Wilt Chamberlain (wrong image) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Lew Alcindor (old school, FTW!) over the Alamo city, the Spurs have shown that desire to excel on the glass, and it's proved to be a huge factor in their last two wins against the Lakers.
They're NOT the 7SoL Suns team, I promise!
I must admit that I love a well run half-court offense. How could anyone be a fan of this team for the last decade plus without being able to appreciate the finer points of bringing up the ball up the court, surveying the defense, and getting into a set that's custom made to exploit the schemes and personnel that the oppenents have in place? That said, the crazy-fast Spurs fast break is not only a lot of fun to watch, but it's a serious weapon that other teams ignore at their own peril. For years, Tony Parker and his OMFB represented our only quick strike option. But now we see full court fast breaks, pulling the ball out of the net quick-hitters, and slick early-offense options that catch the defense in transition, like the below video against the Warriors.
What Gary's Name Means
I tweeted this Friday night (I'm still getting used to the fact that serious sentences can begin with these words), but there has to be some language in the world in which the name Gary Neal means instant offense. While it's true he's not going to make anyone mistake him for T.J. Ford as far as running an offense and defending his man are concerned, Neal brings his own set of skills to the court when he spells Paker, and one of those is the way the ball just seems to love to go through the net for him. Last night, Sean Elliot said that he didn't think he'd ever seen Gary take a bad shot, and while I don't precisely agree with that sentiment, I find that I'm more and more mentally prepared to see him make shots with ever increasing degrees of difficulty. And it's not just leftover goodwill from his heroics in Game 5 of last year's playoffs. He's earned that throughout this season and last. I'm just about ready to give him the Wilco Carte Blanche, currently extended only to Manu, Tim and Tony (as long as Parker is inside the three-point line) for use in being able to take whatever crazy, heat check kind of attempts he wants to, without fear of being reprimanded by me. I can't even remember the last time the words, "No, Gary! Don't shoot that!" have escaped my lips. I just expect even his most off-balanced heaves to fall through.
The real Tim Duncan is now standing up
I've been holding on to this thought for a while, but I think it's finally time to admit that the Tim Duncan we're seeing now is the Duncan we should be able to expect for the playoffs, and that he has very little in common with the one we saw in last year's postseason. I had a few depressing conversations with SiMA after the Memphis elimination, and we were both in a very woe is me mindset. We'd just watched the GOAT PUFF, on numerous occasions, try to post up on the block and be pushed out of position (sometimes nearly to the free throw line) by Marc Gasol, who seemed more like a colossus with every passing game. We talked about how old and tired the T-1000 looked and then we reminisced about how he used to be.
Well, it's not like 2003 Timmeh is back on the roster, but to my eye he's closer to that than he is to the player we saw just twelve months ago. I'm pretty sure that the knee he tweaked against the Warriors last January (and the ankle he turned against the same Golden State team in late-March) are responsible for the Duncan we saw in last year's playoffs. Sure, he was held out of a number of games, and we worried about him for a while, but there was nothing much offered by the Spurs brass about it, and as fans we just kind of moved on. Ten years from now, when he finally authorizes me to write his biography, I fully expect him to confess that the Memphis series in 2011 was the time when he felt the least able to help the team on the floor in the playoffs.
And now, to the video
Manu Threads the Needle: Extra English Version
Look at how slowly and casually Manu throws this pass. The space in the lane is open, and Parker is moving toward it while no one else is, so there's just no need for haste. What's crazy is that he doesn't wait a bit for Parker to get closer so he can throw a more normally-paced pass; the pass is open now, so he throws it now, regardless of how slowly he has to throw it in order to get it there on time. See how he leads Parker by putting the ball out where he knows Parker is going to be. Look at the way he releases the ball down its side so that the spin causes the ball to stop and hop up after it bounces, effectively getting it to the point on the court where it needs to be and then making it hang there for Tony to grab it on it way to the basket for the score. Plays like this should be run on replay to children who express any interest in playing basketball, just to give them an understanding of the kinds of things that are possible on the court besides what they see on your standard Whilrwide Liter highlights.
We all went nuts over the pass against LA on Friday, and with good reason, but this is the one (just over two weeks ago against New Orleans) that showed us the first glimpse of that Jai-Alai-style technique that I expect to triple the amount of bad turnovers that occur in pickup games in the San Antonio area over the next three to four months. It just looks WAY too much fun to do, to not try one yourself. Highlights of these plays should come with some kind of Surgeon General's warning on them: Attempting Such Passes Can Cause, Turnovers, Blank Stares, And May Complicate Team Unity.
The vision required to pull this pass off is just as impressive as the sheer physical genius on display. Manu has to survey the floor, see the vectors that each player's movements represent, then hold those in his mind while he turns around to accept the pass from Stephen Jackson, then turn around again to deliver the sidearm slung pass to Patrick Mills.
THAT Pass, Again
Which brings us to the play from Friday night that has spawned a good half dozen YouTube videos already, with more planned by Spurs fans throughout the week. It's another one of those Manu-plays that make Spurs fans stand up and cheer, or sit in slack-jawed amazement; plays that make announcers chuckle as they try to describe what they just saw.
Something new is revealed from each viewing and every new angle we get to see it from. Click here to launch a new window to jump ahead to the baseline view, or just click below to watch it all again AND see the footage captured by the camera located on the far baseline.
Look at the way Manu takes that hop to his right, the way a tennis player does to set up a cross court passing shot with just the right amount of topspin. Watch the snap on his arm and the twist of his shoulders that you see from quarterbacks. Notice the way he lets his arm slow itself down the way pitchers are taught to. How many sports am I up to now in my attempt to fully describe what he's doing in this one play? I'm losing count.
Listen as Van Gundy tries to articulate as he watches the play on his monitor. He stammers and speaks in fits and starts. It's like his brain is wanting to just turn itself off and simply enjoy it without having the responsibility to come up with words at the moment. And I love the way Breen just laughs in appreciation of everything that needed to happen to make a play of such stunning efficiency and effectiveness.
This last one is included for the final replay from the near baseline. Clicking here will launch another window which will skip the video forward so you can skip straight to the new footage.
This is the angle that gives you a Bonner's Eye View of the play. Now it's time to enjoy something new, and not Manu-based. Matty's hands really snap back when that ball connects. That's not an easy play to make. I know some people were upset that he didn't dunk it because it would have made for a better highlight, but I have a couple of objections to that. First, I'm not sure that Bonner can dunk from a standing start. Second, once he corrals that pass, he's not quite as open as he is before Manu uncorks his fastball, and Bonner is just interested in scoring quickly. Third, he does try to go up with it right away, but he doesn't have the best hold on it immediately (due to how much faster that pass was moving compared to a more normally thrown NBA pass) and has to make an adjustment to get enough of a grip to shoot even a quick, point-blank layup.
Finally, I love Van Gundy's point about the way Manu is "a play ahead". It's just what I was describing about the play against the Hornets above. These plays reveal so much about the level at which Ginobili experiences the game: more like a chess grandmaster than your average shooting guard. As one of my favorite Doc Funk images explains:
Sometimes you just can't grasp the game the way others can. The Sickness sees possibilities that you and I cannot. It's a good thing that there are replays, so we can learn from him.