As I grow older I am getting a renewed appreciation for a "glass-half-full" outlook on life. Even bad things can be enjoyed and appreciated when seen from the proper perspective. The Spurs got outplayed in two games in a row at home by #6 seed. They barely escaped in one of the games, but still lost their home court advantage they had been working for whole long regular season. Still, something good came out of these two games. They made me to appreciate the great power of bad shots in basketball.
I probably would not be able to get there if not for the Fred's recap of the game 2. If you somehow managed to miss Fred's recap, proudly featured on the front page of PtR, don't worry, I'll quote the most important part of it right there:
"Off-balance, contested shots aren't good shots for Stephen Curry and they were not good shots for Klay Thompson. In Game 1, Steph made poor shots. In Game 2, Klay made poor shots. After watching Popovich speak about the "unbelievable" "tough" "difficult" "contested" "off-balance" shots that Klay made, I feel this point is clear.
Those guys should not be making a high percentage of those shots. If they continue to do so, I think the Spurs have to shake the Warriors' hands and then shake their heads."
When I read that part, I had my eureka moment. Everything, what was murky and confusing, all of a sudden became clear and evident. How the Dubs managed to outplay the Spurs in two games at San Antonio? Why our defense looked so bad in the series? Why Pop doesn't look concerned at all? Finally, why are the fans so fascinated with the likes of Kobe Bryant and Steph Curry? The key to answer all these questions is the same: you need to understand and appreciate the power of bad shots.
To review a bit of history, let us consider Kobe Bryant, why is widely regarded as one of the best players in the NBA history. Kobe Bryant shoots a lot. Sometimes he shoots his team out of the game. Sometimes he makes several shots in a row and looks absolutely unstoppable. What makes his game especially impressive is the fact that he is the center of defensive attention in pretty much every game he plays. Many of his shots are contested off-balance tough shots that look impossible to make. When he makes one of these (as he does at least once almost every game) he looks like a superhuman. When he makes a few, people are ready to proclaim him the best player in the game, especially if they never watch Miami games. Kobe's example doesn't pass unnoticed. Following hi lead, a few other players, e.g. J.R.Smith, Jason Terry or Nate Robinson, take a lot of bad shots. Whole team of Golden State Warriors adopted bad shots as a staple of their offense. Season after season, the Dubs score a lot of points in the NBA games by taking a lot of bad shots and getting on fast breaks. They however never played any D to speak of, and therefore they gave up just as much or more than they delivered. Two things have changed for the Ws during 2013 season: (i) they got not one, but two great shooters in Curry and Thompson, as well as several others who can shoot too, though not quite as proficient; and (ii) under defensive-minded coach Mark Jackson they started to play some D. These changes made them more dangerous, but it didn't affect their offense: bad-conceived, off-balance, contested shots are still account for a large fraction of their points. Paradoxically, these shots have served them very well so far in the 2013 playoffs. So, why and how did it happen?
1. Bad Shots as a Weapon Against Good Defense.
When the Dubs embarrassed Denver in the first round series, the Spurs fans did not worry, because conventional wisdom told them that Denver's D was bad, and Spurs' D was good, therefore, the Dubs were supposed to get exposed for what they were by the superior Spurs' defense. Two first games of the round 2 were however very similar for the Dubs to the first two games of their round 1 series. Playing on the road both times, the Ws lost very close game 1 and then took revenge in game 2 going home tied 1-1 both times. So, why the Spurs D was looking so bad against the Dubs? The answer is their (Ws) bad shots. The bad shots is what a good defense gives to the shooters. The problem is that both Curry and Thomson not just took a lot of bad shots, they also made a lot of bad shots, especially in the 3Q of game 1 (Curry) and 2Q of game 2 (Thompson). When a shooter is hell-bent on taking a bad shot, the quality of defense is irrelevant. You can take plenty of bad shots against both good and bad D, and if you can make them, any D looks bad. So the Spurs were looking just as horrible as Denver at home.
2. Bad Shots as a Weapon Against Good Coaching.
A few people would argue against the statement that Pop is a very good coach, probably the best in the game right now. Pop is also famous for his primary focus on defense. Basically, the whole defensive philosophy of the Spurs, as instilled by PATFO, is based on the single principle: take good, high-percentage shots from the opponent's offense and give them instead bad, low-percentage shots. When properly executed, this philosophy makes opponent's offense miserable. Except for one caveat: it doesn't work against the shooters, who make a high-percentage of low-percentage shots. This point is rather evident, as Pop's D gladly wants to give these low-percentage shots to the opponent. And if they make it, well, more power to them, we'll shake their hands and our heads as Fred suggests.
Both Pop and Fred may be content with getting some losses, and with shaking hands and heads, as long as the game is played and lost within the boundaries of the established Spurs' philosophy. I am ready, however, to review some dogmas, if this revision would help us to win. So, the question looms:
3. How to Defeat the Bad Shot Offense?
Our defensive ace Bruce Bowen was one of the most hated players in the league. This deep hatred was rooted in nothing else, but his uncanny talent of making the life of the biggest stars miserable. Probably no one could get under the skin of a shooter as well as Bowen did. The Spurs enjoyed the fruits of his defensive talents for years, however, they were never able to find an adequate replacement after trading him out. I am not quite sure, what defensive secrets Bowen took into his retirement. One of his secrets, in my view, was his combination of mobility and size. Another secret was his readiness to be a bad guy if that helped his team to win. Beside Bowen, a classic example of a "bad guy" defense was provided by Robert Horry, who famously hip-checked Steve Nash in waning moments of a playoff game against the Suns. This play is often, and somewhat justified, frowned upon, but it is hard to deny that it was very important to turn that series around. All-court or at least half-court pressing on the ball and repeated physical contact ("touching") with the shooter may go a long way toward reducing FG% of the opponents' offense. Making shots depends a lot on both mental state and physical condition, so making the shooters both angry and tired may help a lot to overcome their high-percentage shooting. I have no faith however that Pop would consciously use any such tactics. He may prefer to lose a "clean" game rather than to win a "dirty" one.
4. Can We Use a Power of Bad Shots?
So, if bad shots are so powerful, may we be able to use them to our advantage? The short answer is "no". As much as Pop's defensive approach is based on allowing the bad shots, his offensive paradigm is founded on the idea of taking the best shot available. As a rule, our offensive players do not dare to take bad shots, unless their name has "man" in it, and they were born in Argentina, and they just in general don't care. With these rare exceptions, our players will pass, dribble and move until they find a good, wide-open shot and then many of them would pass on it to find even better shot for someone else. Our offense often works very well and is a great fun to watch, unless two or three bad things happen: (i) Tony cannot penetrate - when he is blocked and swarmed in the paint, it often throws his whole offense off. When Tony is off, our offense is off; (ii) passing lines are clogged, leading to TOs - we like to pass a lot, so when defense is aggressively watching for passes, we often struggle (and we cannot use bad shots to bail us out); (iii) our 3-pointers don't fall - our offense is usually potent enough to create wide-open 3-point opportunities. When we make them (50% in game 1), we can overcome other deficiencies and pull out the win. When we don't make them however (24% in game 2), we find ourselves in trouble.
5. Predictions for Near Future in Cali
So, what should we expect from our three-days-two-games road trip to Oakland? I expect the Dubs to stick to their guns. They'll keep taking off-balance, contested, tough shots. They'll also make some of them. I also expect Pop to be wise and mathematical about it, and ask his team to keep pounding the rock until Curry and Klay start missing. Without making high percentage of their low-percentage shots, the Dubs don't have many advantages against the Spurs. As long as Duncan stays healthy, they are unlikely to dominate the paint as they did in game 1. Our defense is good enough to limit their good looks, and our offense is potent enough to provide good looks on another side of the floor. Final result of this series won't depend on who will start for the Spurs, and who will defend whom, and how many minutes will be played by the Big 3. The most important factor is how many bad shots the Warriors will manage to make. If they'll make a high percentage of off-balance contested shots, this series will forever remind us Phoenix 2010 and OKC 2012. If their bad shots would stop falling in, the better team will prevail.