At this point, if you are a regular at Pounding the Rock, or have at least stuck your head into the Internets for a bit to check on the Spurs’ playoff chances, you've no doubt been privy to the myriad opinions of what the Spurs require from each of their Big 3, and their bench, in order to make a deep playoff run and a shot at the Larry O’Brien trophy.
The discussion has taken place on national television, on blog posts, in comments sections, over mugs of coffee and beer, between next door neighbors with cool middles names, and generally all over the San Antonio and national sports media world since the playoffs began. Essentially, the bulk of the argument breaks down to this: Tim Duncan needs to be solid, Tony Parker needs to be MVP-caliber, Manu Ginobili needs to be predictably unpredictable, and the bench needs to hit their open looks. Oh, and everybody needs to be healthy (or at least not receiving epidurals). This magical concoction of production from each of the key facets of the San Antonio Spurs roster could, and should, result in a Finals appearance, where Silver and Black has never been defeated.
I am not here to argue the merits or faults of these conclusions, as I believe they are essentially correct. When the Spurs were at their best during the regular season, Timmy was consistently recording double-doubles, Tony was getting into the paint at will, and Manu was ... suited up and somewhat healthy.
This will be the first in a series of posts which will track how each of the Spurs Big Three performs against the projected requirements for success. I’ll start here with Game 1 to establish our first "data point," and then we will watch how each of our fundamental pieces trends throughout the playoffs, ASAKOW. If we can establish clearly positive, or in some cases, stable, trends throughout the postseason, we as fans should feel confident that our guys are extricating themselves from that late regular season mud in which they appeared perpetually mired.
Nobody on the Spurs roster has been as stable and consistent as Tim Duncan. Youthful and fresh aside from a relatively minor knee injury scare, Timmy is an oak. He is seventh in the league in double-doubles, anchors a resurgent Spurs defense, and provides emotional and mental leadership for the entire team. Much has been said about Duncan’s incredible season, even in national media circles, but he deserves nearly endless praise. The GOATPUFF has been downright masterful this year. While his physical skills have waned with bygone seasons, his ageless desire to win is no less fierce than when he earned Rookie of the Year more than a decade and a half ago.
Despite his consistent, high level production, San Antonio doesn't really need Timmy to register double-doubles to win. In the regular season, the Spurs were only 25-11 when Tim Duncan got to double figures in points and rebounds, yet they were 25-8 when he didn't (while receiving at least some playing time; they were 8-5 in games he missed). So while a solid offensive production from Timmy is beneficial, especially as Tony (hopefully) finds his way back to mid-season form, he doesn't necessarily need to have a double-double to benefit the team.
That's because Duncan is most effective as a defensive anchor. Without going into too much statistical detail, suffice it to say that the Spurs margin of victory is pretty significantly correlated to Duncan’s number of blocks (for you statisticians out there, p = 0.09). A dominant defensive performance from Duncan is pretty much the harbinger of a Spurs victory.
Here is Duncan’s statline for Game 1:
17 pts (6-15), 10 rebs, 1 ast, 3 stl, 0 blk, 3 TO, 4 PF in 35 minutes
So he had a double-double despite the poor shooting night, but aside from the 3 steals, his statistics were somewhat lacking on the defensive end. That’s not to say he didn't play a good defensive game, as statistics do not tell the whole story (case in point: Marc Gasol just won DPOY). The Lakers ran their offense through the post all night, feeding Howard, Gasol, or Jamison in the low block. By my count, Duncan only allowed two points in the post in Game 1: a Howard layup following a missed strip attempt. Duncan spent much of his time guarding Howard in the post, which is a tough assignment for any NBA big, and repeatedly trying to block Howard is a sure recipe for foul trouble. Because Duncan’s ability to block relies mostly on positioning and timing, he altered his strategy to try to strip the ball before the strong and athletic Howard could even go up with it. Timmy only had four other games this season with 3 steals (he never had more than 3), so I think it’s safe to say he is altering his strategy against Dwight Howard.
Overall, Timmy provided just what we needed. Nothing spectacular, but seriously solid play on both ends of the court. I give him an A- for this performance relative to our requirements, with the minus only because he failed to register at least one block.
Ah, the "oui" Frenchman. Aside from Ginobili’s health, nothing is more critical to the Spurs (yet more uncertain at this point in the season) than the efficient offensive production of Tony Parker. Without an unrelenting assault on the paint from Parker -- resulting in layups, fouls, or kick-outs -- the Spurs’ first-unit offense becomes more stagnant than a mosquito-breeding puddle left by summertime Texas thundershower. At the very core of the current Popovich system is Tony’s ability to drive and score or dish. Statistically, Tony’s offensive production is much more significant to the Spurs margin of victory than Timmy’s.
Prior to his ankle injury on March 1st, Tony was on a tear. He averaged 26.1 points on 54% shooting and 8.3 assists while committing only 2.1 turnovers per game in the month of February. Since the injury, he has averaged only 16.7 points on only 44% shooting, 7.3 assists and 2.9 turnovers per game.
He has shown signs of improvement, though his inability to show up in pivotal late regular season games against the Thunder (1/6 FG for 2 pts in 25 minutes) and Lakers (1/10 FG for 4 pts in 28 minutes) is serious cause for concern. One bright spot has been his ability to somewhat reproduce his regular season assist to turnover ratio even in this slump (2.52 in the slump versus 2.92 for the season). The biggest question mark is his shooting. If Tony can’t find a way to elevate his field goal percentage above .500, both by knocking down his typically reliable jumper and finishing in the paint, the Spurs stand little chance of advancing beyond the Western Conference Finals, if that. The Spurs need Tony to find his game, and soon.
Here is Tony’s line for Game 1:
18 pts (8-21), 8 asts, 3 stls, 2 TO, 1 PF in 37 minutes
Tony’s game was just... meh. 18 points and 8 assists isn’t a bad line to go along with 3 steals, but he played 37 minutes and took 21 shots, making only 38% of them. This has to change pronto. The Spurs cannot afford for Tony to miss so many shots, especially in the paint. He likely still isn’t completely healthy, but given the physicality of playoff games, he may never get to 100%. If he doesn't, he may need to reduce his shooting volume and focus on efficiency and distribution. The 8 assists from last night were good, especially since that number could have been 10+ if Duncan and the wings had made more of their shots.
Overall, Tony can probably get away with these kinds of performances against the Lakers, simply because they don’t have a high quality defensive stopper on the perimeter. If the Spurs advance to the Conference Finals however, Parker will need to have his game on lockdown to be successful against Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha. I’ll give Tony a B- for last night’s performance, if only because he had a good assist to turnover ratio.
My fingers were frantically hastening through the above sections about Timmy and Tony, because I could not wait to get to the part about Game 1’s hero. Who wouldn’t want to write about his Game 1 performance? It was brilliant. Ginobili was EXACTLY what the Spurs needed him to be in his first significant game back from a hamstring injury.
During the regular season, it seemed that Manu was as easily sighted as the mythical unicorn. He was on the Spurs roster, but it was never certain if he would be playing a full game, especially late in the season. And the Spurs generally performed fine without him. Ginobili missed or had very limited minutes in 8 games of the Spurs longest regular season win streak of 11 games. That late January/early February stretch of games, apart from a blip against the Pistons, was some of San Antonio’s best basketball of the season, and Ginobili wasn’t around for most of it.
Certainly I’m not suggesting that a healthy Ginobili isn’t vital to the Spurs playoffs success, right? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. While the Spurs played solid ball in that stretch, they played more sub .500 teams than not, and really only faced one quality opponent in the Golden State Warriors.
Against the highest quality opponents, Ginobili’s performance is vital. It’s not that the Spurs need him to do any one thing particularly well; what they require from El Contusión is his tenacity, impeccable awareness of his moments, and an overall knack for being the X-factor in a tight game. His unconventional, creative play has been fundamental to the Spurs last three championships, and it will be crucial if they want to win a fifth.
Here is Manu’s statline for Game 1:
18 pts (6-13, 3-5 3P), 3 asts, 2 stl, 3 TO, 2 PF in 19 minutes
A quick glance at this line does not reveal anything spectacular. If this were just about any NBA guard with Ginobili’s career numbers, you might call it a somewhat off night with sub .500 shooting and an AST/TO ratio of 1. That the statline is so misleading confirms the truth about Manu’s role in the current model for a Spurs championship team. He may not have filled his sheet with gaudy numbers, but Ginobili’s timing in Game 1 was flawless. He played entirely within the flow of the game, even with his limited minutes, and nobody who watched the action would disagree that he was the difference maker.
For his incredible, completely Manu-esque performance, I give an A+. Let’s continue to pray that he stays healthy, because if Manu Ginobili can keep performing at this level throughout the playoffs, as his minutes increase, the Spurs should have a legitimate shot to face the
Heat Eastern Conference Champions.
Tonight, the Spurs face the Lakers for Game 2. We'll see if our guys can develop positive trends before heading to Los Angeles for Friday night's game. Here's hoping they'll work the system, pound the rock, and get one step closer to Round 2 and the O’Brien trophy. 1 down, 15 to go.