Editor's Note: This article is being run again as a special Friday feature for this season: bringing back a post from PtR's past to enjoy again. If you have any suggestions for next week, please leave them in the comments.
Musicians have a term they use when playing together feels just right, when the rhythm section is so locked in that the bass and the kick drum meld into a single entity to form the foundation upon which a groove can be built. When the guitar and keyboards aren't merely playing together, they're having a conversation -- bouncing off each other while becoming a single instrument. This phenomenon has been called the pocket. And it goes far beyond excellent musicianship, elevating the music to otherwise unreachable heights. In a sense, the musicians stop playing, and music takes over.
The music simply flows, without effort or control. Electricity fills the room and the audience can't get enough -- the musicians even more so. The pocket is why guitarists play until their fingers bleed; why drummers ride until their hands swell; why keyboardists develop carpal tunnel syndrome; why 9pm sessions are still going when the sun comes up. Once you get in the pocket, you never want to leave. It is the ultimate form of creating music together.
And it's the place from which the Spurs play basketball.
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The Spurs move the most out of any other team in the playoffs. This goes beyond ball movement to how much the players themselves move. In terms of miles traveled per 48 minutes, the Spurs have four of the top five players in the Playoffs--Patty Mills leads with 4.0 miles per 48 minutes (followed by Will Barton, Tony Parker, Danny Green and Marco Belinelli). Kawhi Leonard is not far behind in thirteenth, and Boris Diaw fills in at the twenty-first.
This disparity in movement between the Spurs and the rest of the league comes from their set offense, running The System. Through the offense -- the reads, the cuts, the screens, the drives, the passes and the shots -- the Spurs find themselves playing in the pocket.
Musicians can only play in the pocket when they stop listening to themselves, and start paying attention to the other players -- when they get over themselves, as Gregg Popovich would say. After all, each player has to be in sync to reach the pocket. It stops being about the players, and starts being about the something that can only happen in unison.
The Spurs need complete trust in each other to play their system. The effort they put into running does not come from one player's desire to score. Trust is required to run those routes, to know that each player will set the screen, will drag his man away from the space needed, will make the pass that leads to the pass that pulls the defense apart until -- as if by magic -- a Spur is standing alone with the ball in a prime scoring position. And it happens when it's not about any one player, but about the play, about the team. About the pocket.
Playing basketball in the pocket is only achieved through selflessness -- when each player stops caring if he scores, and only makes decisions so that the team has the best opportunity for a great shot.
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An experienced musician once told me about the effortlessness with which professional musicians produce beautiful improvisational pieces. He said that this ability came from the musician's endless practice of scales. Only through this memorization, both physical and mental, can musicians reach new levels of improvisation, because without mastery of their art, there can never be seamless creation. And in the pocket, the intricacies that the scales provide are magnified, as the music connects player with the player.
That effort in practicing the scales results in the excellence that's experienced through the performance. The system is the scales. The instrument is the basketball. The music is the sport. The Spurs run their system without end. It is simply the unrelenting way they play the game.
The way the Spurs move through their progressions, the effort that they put in running their system results in the great looks and easy buckets they produce. To put it in perspective, the top three scorers in the playoffs, Kevin Durant, Lebron James, and James Harden, are at the bottom of the list in terms of miles traveled per 48 minutes (in the bottom 15). This means they often find themselves stationary, and then create something out of nothing.
Durant and James and Harden expend most of their energy on the difficult plays, and with good reason. In basketball, the act of consistently creating scoring opportunities is demanding. But because of their exceptional talent and effort, they are able to do so. Because these players are so rare, the Spurs focus on creating plays with the whole team. Exceptional effort is put toward the simple plays: moving bodies. And it's through that effort and motion and precision and sacrifice that the Spurs create those plays we love so much.
The plays they make from the pocket.